Meet Lila Gierasch, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Biological Chemistry

An expert in protein folding, Gierasch says the Journal of Biological Chemistry welcomes all research that gets to the heart of "mechanistic origins and underpinnings"
Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay
June 1, 2017

For the past year, Lila Gierasch at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has been the editor-in-chief for the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Gierasch is the 11th editor of the journal, which has been published by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for more than a century.

Lila Gierasch became editor of JBC in July 2016.

Gierasch’s research interests are in how a cell uses molecular chaperones to help proteins fold and to rescue misfolded proteins and avoid pathological aggregation. The work on molecular chaperones has implications for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s. In 2016, Gierasch was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers in the U.S.

ASBMB Today’s former managing editor Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay spoke with Gierasch about the changes she’s bringing to JBC, her research and how she stays informed about advances in science. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been the editor-in-chief since July 2016. How would you describe the past year?

It’s been exciting and gratifying in many ways. I’ve just been having a blast.

What challenges does JBC face, and how do you begin to tackle them?

I knew that this is a challengng time for JBC. Like many other journals, JBC is in a competitive publishing landscape. I knew it to be a venerable journal with a long history, but it needed to take a look at itself in the mirror and think about what the future held in store.

There is a lot of talent at the ASBMB and in the editorial team. I’ve started working with this group, and it is a team that is very committed to JBC. That part has been a really rewarding aspect. When the associate editors and I meet, we have a shared purpose that comes through very clearly. Everybody accepts that we’re all here to revitalize the journal, which makes things exciting and fun.

Can you give us some examples of changes that have come about in JBC in the past year?

So far, the changes we’ve made have been relatively small, but when you add them up, they make a difference. We’ve attempted to make the articles in the journal more readable. There has been a lot of effort behind the scenes put into improving titles and abstracts so that our readers can understand the main points of a paper more quickly. JBC is such a big journal that you want to make it possible to see what papers are about and what are the important points. If you look at the website, you can see pointers to articles, which are short, punchy descriptions of papers that help a reader quickly access the high points of the journal. We have biweekly emails that call attention to particularly significant papers. We’ve just started publishing highlights about what we now call Editors’ Picks, which used to be the Papers of the Week, which are the papers that are highly rated by reviewers.

The purpose of all these things is to get the information in JBC out so that people can see what’s in the journal quickly. We’re all inundated with too much literature, so we want to have ways of making the content more accessible and discoverable and making the reading experience more pleasurable.

For authors, we’re doing things bit by bit to try to make it easier to submit papers and get rid of some of the submission requirements that slow down the process. These sound mechanical, but they are all under the aegis of an effort to make the journal more reader-friendly and author-facile.

We haven’t changed the review system. We think that’s very strong. One thing we prize in the journal is the fact that we want authors to describe fully how they do experiments. We continue to try to make sure that the data in JBC stand up to critical assessment and that the description of protocols is complete. We’re building on that tradition in a new partnership with Bio-protocol, which is a journal that takes protocols from papers and lays out step-by-step versions to make it easier for somebody to reproduce an experiment; we’re looking forward to new opportunities that might be possible when JBC papers can be linked to Bio-protocol procedures.

We see the science as being so important that we want to make it accessible and readable and also do everything we can to enhance the quality and reproducibility of what’s in the published record in JBC.

What kinds of papers fall within the scope of the journal?

I wrote in one of my early editorials, “What’s in a name?” about what biological chemistry is. We’re trying to get at the molecular mechanisms behind important life processes. That’s a broad coverage. Does JBC want to narrow itself? Not really. We just want to make sure that authors have that kind of focus to their study — that they are attempting to understand mechanistic origins and underpinnings for physiological phenomena.

There’s a strong heritage in the enzyme-mechanisms area. We don’t want to say goodbye to that at all. It’s at the heart of JBC. Signal transduction is also an area that people have sought out JBC as a home for. We’ve seen some areas, the more biophysical areas, that perhaps haven’t been as rich in JBC, so we’re welcoming that now. Computation has been an area where we’ve asked in the past that (the computational work) be tied to experiment. We made it very clear that you don’t have to do that now. You have to say what the question is, and you’ll have to put forth results that might lead to experiments or offer explanations for experiments that are out in the literature. But you don’t have to have it all in one paper. My own research area in molecular chaperones has been well represented in JBC over the years but perhaps less so in recent years. We welcome submissions in this area.

What are some of the areas of research that you personally find fascinating?

There was a period — I’m dating myself — in the mid-’90s when the whole concept of a molecular chaperone was being discovered. It’s my own lab’s goal to try to understand better how chaperones work and how the interplay of the protein homeostasis network components helps to maintain a healthy proteome. I would like to see that kind of science be welcomed in JBC.

I also think of the -omics revolution. It’s not that we want to become “JBC-omics,” but these approaches are tools, and they are essential to the way people think. We want to make sure we have the expertise to do the proper reviews in those areas, so you’ll see an effort to enhance our review team in those areas. Chemical biology — a lot of exciting work going on with chemical tools. There are a lot of journals that welcome this area, but what we want to say is that JBC is a very appropriate home for papers where you’re using chemical tools to dissect physiological mechanisms.

What are some of the projects in your lab?

We are exploring how chaperones facilitate protein folding and protein quality control in two ways. One is to burrow into the mechanisms of individual chaperones and understand how they work. They are molecular machines. We’re working very hard on the Hsp70 family. The cell has to cope with various types of stress — it can be heat or overproduction of protein by a virus. There are a lot of Hsp70 chaperones that get expressed in order to help the cell deal with this load of either misfolded proteins or overly abundant proteins. We do biophysical studies on chaperone mechanisms in great depth. We use NMR, circular dichroism, fluorescence and computational methods.

Then the other part of the lab is asking how networks of chaperones work. The cell is making many different proteins. At different times, you have different types of proteins being made, so there’s a flow of proteins through the chaperone networks. They get released as folded proteins, but along the way, the partially folded states that are newly synthesized are being handled by chaperones. If they don’t fold properly, many of them are degraded. Chaperones are decision points — if a protein hasn’t folded properly, it either will be reworked by chaperones or degraded.

What do you see as some of the pros and cons of being a 21st-century researcher?

That question goes along with why this is a fun time to be an editor of a journal and why we shouldn’t have an 18 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health. It’s all the same answer: We are at a time when you can do unbelievable science. There is so much being learned by so many people, if you can keep yourself aware and informed. The capacity of science is tremendous.

How do you stay informed?

We all rely on the hallway conversations that tell you what somebody is doing. This is a valuable way to learn things. Then we learn from going to meetings and giving seminars. It’s very underrated how much of science happens through personal contact.

My lab has what we call Literature Lunch. We sit and talk with one another about what we read and why we thought it was worth telling everybody about. We do this once a week. It’s fun. This past week, I said, “Let’s talk about how we find papers.” We talked about the fact that some people scan tables of contents. Almost everybody sets up some searches, either through PubMed or other methods. People follow sets of journals as well as some authors. You have to do all of it. You also have to make sure that there’s some reading you do outside your normal search terms. You won’t see some landmark findings if you’re too narrow in the way you look at the literature.

It’s one of the things I’m thinking about for JBC: the challenge of discoverability. How do you make sure that content searching is made easy for people so they can find what’s in the journal? With JBC, it’s particularly challenging because it’s big. We’re working on it.

What do you hope to accomplish for the journal five years from now?

I have a list of dreams. Some are relatively simple, like having almost individualized versions of the journal. I think it’s important not to narrow what somebody reads so they miss important papers, but it’s a big journal. If you look at the table of contents as it comes along, it’s hard to keep up. It’s already possible for people to create personalized email alerts by searching with keywords, authors and specific papers, but I think the process could be improved.

I’d like to see the journal become more consonant with digital publishing. We’re still thinking of issues, and yet there’s no printed copy. I suspect we’ll move toward continuous publication. I suspect also we’ll try to make it possible to connect papers, even make them living documents, so that a paper is not an end point. By connecting papers, you can see the development of an idea as you read a paper and see its origins. If you look at a protocol, you can see where the protocol was before and what has changed in it.

I also think that the idea of a figure as a flat, static image is not the way science works. There should be some way to allow the reader to have access to the data so that he or she can look at what the authors were looking at. You can think of this readily in terms of structural biology, because you can pull up a Protein Data Bank image and rotate it, etc. This should also be true for other types of data. That’s another one of my dreams, one I think is quite readily doable. We’re a data-rich journal, so we can make data a part of what JBC provides to readers.

Can you tell us one thing about yourself that is not well-known?

I began my career teaching at an undergraduate institution. I taught at Amherst College for my first job. When I was at Amherst, I had an active research program. I had a regular NIH R01 grant, a National Science Foundation major instrumentation grant and all that. I was doing research with undergrads. I thought that would be a very fulfilling position — to teach and do research. But it turns out it’s very hard to run a major research program at such an institution. Also, you really miss having the graduate students who stay with you a little longer, and you’re able to empower them more than you can with undergrads. So I moved to a research institution.

None of us can do everything all the time, so I’m glad I had that part of my career.

What words of wisdom would you have for people who are considering becoming scientists?

It’s a tough time. I remember other tough times, because I’ve been around the block a couple of times. You think you’re pushing a boulder up a hill and you’re not appreciated. Financing research becomes a major challenge. But you have to follow your passion. You have to be willing to be dogged and persevere. If you care enough about it, some doors will open. They just may not be the doors you thought they would be.

Don’t be discouraged. Times will change, and you have to be ready for it. You just have to be continually doing what your passion drives you to do.

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Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay

Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay is the former managing editor of ASBMB Today.

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