Essay

An unpredictable journey

Alex Toker
By Alex Toker
May 11, 2023

People often ask me how I got into science and biochemistry. I do not come from a family of scientists. Instead, my earliest recollection of exposure to science is as a teenager wandering around the displays and halls of the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum in London. For reasons that are hard to recollect, I was fascinated by all things of the natural world, and I spent hour upon hour every weekend in these two great museums diligently devouring all the knowledge I could find.

It therefore felt quite natural to study biology and biochemistry for my undergraduate degree at King’s College London and then pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the National Institute for Medical Research, also in London. As luck would have it, I landed a postdoc in Lewis Cantley’s lab in Boston, first at Tufts University and thereafter at Harvard Medical School. That’s where my interests in cell and molecular biology and biochemistry solidified and, equally importantly, where I first encountered the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

In the mid-1990s, the JBC was still a print publication. Each week, Dr. Cantley would receive the large, distinctively light green JBC hard copy. He’d circle and label with the initials of each postdoc and student a manuscript in the table of contents that was relevant for us. That was our signal to read that paper. He performed this weekly routine much in the same way we now look at eTOCs in our emails.

Academic publishing has undergone a radical (re)evolution and change in the ensuing 30 years, but one thing has not changed: Since its inception in 1905, JBC has set the standard for high-quality, enduring research. It’s a journal for scientists, run by scientists, and owned and supported by the ASBMB, a society that formed shortly after JBC was founded and that, after more than 100 years, continues to support and advocate for science.

As a postdoc in the 1990s, I never could have predicted my own journey with the ASBMB. I was extremely proud to publish my papers in JBC as a trainee and then in my own lab, and as I transitioned to independence, I jumped at the chance to review JBC papers on an ad hoc basis whenever asked. Perhaps this was one reason I was formally invited to join the JBC editorial board, on which I served two terms.

As an EBM, I would review 60, 70, sometimes 80 papers in one year (something we no longer allow at JBC). At an ASBMB annual meeting, the inimitable Bob Simoni, a JBC associate editor, told me that one of the associate editors had coined the term “tokered” to describe the quantity and speed of JBC reviewing. Perhaps this is why I was invited to join the JBC board as an associate editor, and again I jumped at this opportunity.

After serving one and a half terms as an AE, I was delighted to be chosen as editor-in-chief, starting in fall 2021.

People often ask me, Why do you do all this work? I am a firm believer in academic science and society publishing and giving back to the scientific community. I am also a believer in many of the principles that guide the ASBMB and JBC in terms of publishing, advocating for science, promoting a culture of inclusivity and diversity, and ensuring the integrity of the published content in the three ASBMB journals.

Being an EBM, AE and EiC is a tremendous amount of work. We all are working scientists, with many demands on our time and countless commitments. But this work is incredibly rewarding. As active scientists in each of our communities, we play a major role in shaping the direction of the journal and ensure we maintain the standards of rigor, reproducibility and enduring science that ASBMB journals are known for.

I also have been privileged to meet and work with some extraordinary scientists over the years, most notably Herbert Tabor, who was JBC EiC for more than 40 years, and Lila Gierasch, my JBC EiC predecessor. The spirit of community and fraternity at the ASBMB and JBC is something I pay a great deal of attention to when it comes to recruiting new EBMs and AEs. This spirit is equally evident in the many staff members who have worked at the ASBMB over the years.

When I received news that I had been selected as a fellow of the ASBMB last year, I was incredibly honored but also tremendously humbled. Seeing my name alongside so many extraordinary scientists, many of whom I consider my science heroes, is something that teenager wandering around the museums in London some 40 years ago would never in his wildest imagination have predicted.

Other Fellow articles

Paul Craig: People in the ASBMB have changed my life

Susanna Greer: Saying yes to a community of communicators

Nathan Vanderford: Investing in the next generation

Ralph A. Bradshaw: The ASBMB and me

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Alex Toker
Alex Toker

Alex Toker is a professor and chief of the division of signal transduction in the departments of medicine and pathology and the cancer center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School as well as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and a 2022 ASBMB fellow.

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