Meet Steve Carr
Steven A. Carr, director of the Proteomics Platform at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, became a deputy editor at the journal Molecular & Cellular Proteomics along with Anne-Claude Gingras at the Lunenfeld–Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto this past fall. Carr has been an associate editor with the journal since its inception in 2002. The journal’s editor-in-chief is Al Burlingame of the University of California, San Francisco. Carr spoke with John Arnst, ASBMB Today’s science writer. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell us about the work you’re doing.
The research in my lab focuses on developing and applying technologies to quantify proteins, their modifications, and their interaction partners in stages of health, disease and other perturbation conditions. We do that work to try to understand the function of the proteins and their response and resistance to drugs.
My group also has a major focus on discovery and quantitative verification of biomarkers for major diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and infectious disease. We put a lot of time and effort into pushing new technologies in that area as well.
What was your background and research training?
I did my undergraduate work at a college in upstate New York called Union College. I was a chemistry major, and I thought I was going to be an organic chemist, so I went to (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for graduate school and began work in a laboratory doing organic chemistry with Klaus Biemann.
I then did a postdoc with Vernon Reinhold at Harvard Medical School. I realized that mass spectrometry’s primary use at the time was for analyzing post-translational modifications. The most difficult of those at the time was glycosylation. It remains probably one of the more difficult areas of post-translational modification to make any headway in.
I left Harvard Medical School to go to what was, at the time, Smith, Kline & French laboratories down in Philadelphia. They were just beginning to acquire very significant amounts of money from their H2 antagonist, Tagamet, which became, I believe, the first billion-dollar drug on the market. They were building a huge facility out in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. They were an old, sleepy pharmaceutical company, but they hit on Tagamet, and they basically decided to completely revitalize and reorganize the company.
Hepatitis B vaccine was the very first thing that I worked on when I went there, and it was really a thrilling process. I went back and forth from Philadelphia to Ricksonfort, Belgium, where our vaccine affiliate was located, and was involved in all of the initial characterization work of that vaccine product. What was very interesting was that protein was extremely hydrophobic.
Mass spectrometry was ideally suited for this. We covered a very high percentage of the protein in our regulatory filing, and it really helped the company get the vaccine on the market when we were in hot competition with Merck. It turned out to be a big product for the company, partially because the World Health Organization came around and said that all children have to be vaccinated with hepatitis B vaccine. That helped both Merck and Smith Kline.
That was maybe an unexpected and unusual win for a drug company at that time, because it was a very fast timeline from the start through to completion. That never happened again for me, so in many ways it was setting me up for failure further on. Many disappointments in projects occurred after that point and taught me that research is really hard and failure is the most common thing that you’re going to have to learn to deal with. And keep your chin up.
Is there any advice you would give to young scientists?
There are two pieces of advice. One is that it’s really important, if you can manage it, to be in a field that is at the intersection of at least two different areas. Mass spectrometry was kind of its own specialization, but applying mass spectrometry in biotechnology was that junction. It just makes you a lot more valuable (as a researcher) and provides the most interesting problems to work on. The other piece of advice is that life’s long and work is a huge part of what you do, so you better care about what you do; otherwise, change what it is you’re doing.
What made you want to become a scientist?
I credit my parents. Neither of them had a high-school education. They were forced as a result of the Depression to leave school and go to work. They impressed on me that I had to get an education. We ran a television repair shop out of my parents’ house where I lived in Putnam Valley, New York. I did work in that shop alongside my father and learned a fair amount about electronics. He was entirely self-taught. Those were the sort of things that rubbed off on me — the general curiosity about how things work and why and this push toward education. Chemistry was originally the thing I wanted to do more than anything, partly because I had chemistry sets when I was a kid and did a lot of fooling around in the basement with them.
When I went off to college, there were a couple of really good professors at Union College that took a special interest in me. They helped me understand that I could actually apply to graduate school, I could go beyond just getting a college education, I didn’t have to go out immediately and try to get a job after college.
How is the new role at MCP going so far?
I think it’s going well. I feel empowered a bit more to help make decisions and move the journal forward into the future. There’s a number of things that are still under discussion that I think are going to make MCP even more attractive to the community of proteomics scientists as a place to publish. Those will get rolled out in the not-too-distant future.
What was your reaction like when you were asked to be a deputy editor?
I was honored, of course, and felt empowered to speak up at an even greater level than I had previously. It’s a pleasure working with Al and Anne-Claude. I think that we’re a terrific team, and we’ve gotten off to a great start.
Between your lab work and your MCP duties, what do you do outside of the lab?
I have done a lot of woodworking in my time. I haven’t been able to do as much lately, but I still consider that a hobby. I am a scuba diver. My son and I, whenever we have the chance, go off to some exotic location and go diving together. We’ve gone to Bonair several times (Author’s note: Bonair is in the southern Caribbean). We’ve gone to Hawaii. The South Pacific, specifically Palau, is on the bucket list. That area is fantastic not just because the coral is still reasonably intact in those areas but because there are a lot of wrecks, unfortunately, from World War II. The wreck diving there is really, really good.
Do you have any advice for balancing your life in the lab with life outside of it?
Balance is definitely the wrong word. I think it’s more like a teeter-totter. You sit on the work end, you hit the ground and you’re sitting there for a while, laboring away at work, and suddenly you realize that, wait a minute, that other part of your life, which is the other end of the teeter-totter, is up in the air and you haven’t dealt with it. You have to rebalance. I go traveling with my wife, and I go for long hikes with her. That’s how I try to provide some balance.
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