My time with Ed Krebs as a postdoc in the mid-1970s in both Davis and Seattle had a great influence on my scientific development. Ed had a “hands-off” approach to science that focused on providing resources for a large lab with mostly postdocs, each with a different, mostly self-directed project that had minimal overlap with other projects. This freedom had a broadening impact on postdocs, and, for myself, it formed the model for my own laboratory. Ed expected each person to have passion for his or her work and once commented that he was disappointed to drive by the lab late on a Saturday evening and find no lights on. We postdocs then decided to leave the lights on 24/7.
Ed was a traditional “ice bucket biochemist” and enzymologist, and I was his first postdoc with a cell biology background. I think he was initially not sure what to make of “biochemistry without a license,” but that skepticism vanished when we were quickly able to show by microinjecting protein kinase A into Xenopus oocytes that changes in kinase activity could fully account for all the in vivo actions of cAMP in an important biological process. For myself, I learned how to purify enzymes, beginning with phosphorylase kinase, from kilograms of tissue, and this experience served me well in later years when purifying mitotic enzymes (Cdks), whose characterization had eluded others for many years. It was an amazing time in science, because, although Krebs and Fischer had shown the critical importance of phosphorylation in glycogen metabolism, it was not thought to be of much importance for other aspects of biology. At the end of my postdoc, it was reported that the Src oncogene encoded a protein kinase— a finding that linked kinases to cancer and ultimately led the way to the current realization that protein phosphorylation controls virtually all biological processes. It was one of those rare times in science when one happens to be working on something that turns out to be much more important than initially believed.
Although Ed received many honors during his lifetime, his gentle nature was very unassuming, and he exhibited little interest in scientific politics or in going to meetings. He had a long-standing presence in ASBMB as associate editor of the JBC and felt that there was no need to search for “higher impact” journals if the work was sound. Throughout his life, he kept focused on key questions in glycogen metabolism, even after vastly increased support from Howard Hughes Medical Institute and winning the Nobel Prize. To the end, he felt that there were many questions still unanswered about the regulation of metabolism by protein phosphorylation, and he wanted to continue working on them.
James L. Maller
Professor of pharmacology
University of Colorado School of Medicine
I was fortunate to have Ed as my Ph.D. mentor from 1966 to 1970. Two specific pieces of advice that influenced my career come to mind. The first was when I was a student in Ed’s lab and was concerned that another lab was working on the same project. Ed’s advice was that any time you are working on an important project, there will be strong competition, so find some niche where you have an advantage and pursue that aspect. The second was as a professor at Vanderbilt (University) when we were both Howard Hughes investigators. There had been a change in Hughes leadership, and I was concerned about whether or not they would continue to fund my research. Ed told me to not worry about what Hughes wanted, just make sure my research was outstanding— if so, it would all work out. He was right! Ed’s legacy will continue through the many young scientists he mentored.
Senior scientist, Vollum Institute
Professor of biochemistry
Oregon Health and Science University
Thinking of Ed always brings a smile to my face. While others will rightfully comment on his brilliant scientific insight, his administrative skills and his role as a mentor, what particularly stands out in my memory is Ed’s unusual sense of humor. About 10 years ago, I brought a star-struck graduate student to meet Ed, who proceeded to talk to her about research that he had done “during World War I.” Afterward, he professed to me his amusement that the student had not caught the historical error. This, and many other incidents, always left me wondering whether Ed was kidding around in a given situation. He kept such a straight face that one could never tell. Once, during a whiskey-laced late-night card game at one of our Pack Forest retreats, Ed told me that I had a good poker face. Coming from him, this was quite a compliment!
I thank Ed for many things, including his anecdotes of agricultural pursuits, his tutelage in antique hunting and his mentoring in how to write manuscript reviews, but most of all I thank him for demonstrating how a great scientist can be a great human being.
Kathryn E. Meier
Director of program in nutrition and exercise physiology
Washington State University