May 2012

Credos for challenging times


Have biochemists and molecular biologists become more cranky in recent years? I think so. For example, there was a time when manuscript reviews would come back with warm praise and a highly constructive tone. I once received a review in which the referee took the time to make suggestions about grammatical usage that were very much appreciated by this then-assistant professor. That kind of review doesn’t need to be rare: Each of us can be the change we wish to see, as the saying goes. Referees should remember that their comments are not just directed at a lab head; reviews have the biggest impact on the students and postdocs who have to respond to each of the points raised with additional data and, certainly, some level of discouragement.

Gregory A. Petsko and Dagmar Ringe are both professors of biochemistry and chemistry at Brandeis University, where they jointly run a laboratory.

A vicious cycle can start with a critical or seemingly unfair manuscript review. Crankiness can escalate: How we treat each other can mirror how we feel we are treated. Are referees asking for more and more information for a single manuscript each year? Who decided that more was needed? All of us did, as authors, grant applicants, reviewers and editors, somewhere along the line. We calibrate reviews of papers and grants by what we perceive the state of the field to be – which we learn by looking at what other published papers (or funded grants) include and what other reviews look like.

I recently submitted a manuscript to a journal that is expressly designed to publish papers that present new information, requiring only that the conclusions be justified by the data. This story was part of a graduate student’s very challenging thesis; the highly significant results were just out of reach, and it was time for this man to graduate. One reviewer thought it was just fine; the other reviewed the work as if it had been submitted to a much fancier journal. There was no appeasing this reviewer, despite my attempt to remind him or her which journal we had selected. So a new lab member did all that was asked; at last, the significance of the findings took a major leap forward, and we resubmitted a fully revised manuscript to a journal of much higher repute. I remind my lab members that I have never seen a paper that is not improved upon revision, no matter how stupid the comments may sometimes seem. Reviewers do help authors improve papers – they just should do this constructively and with sensitivity.

I have heard it said, “A day planning experiments can be more valuable than a week doing experiments.” Mike Brown and Joe Goldstein chide their students that it is always “pH before Ph.D.” My former colleague Arthur Kornberg was well known for saying, “Don’t waste clean thoughts on dirty enzymes.” Another credo I like is “Don’t be greedy.” This one applies when a student complains that half the expressed enzyme is insoluble. I say, focus on the great yield in the soluble fraction!

Greg Petsko and Dagmar Ringe have a set of rules for their jointly run lab that I find useful.

  1. 1) If you think you know the answer, you will get that answer, even if it’s the wrong answer.  
  2. 2) Never confuse an assumption with a fact. 
  3. 3) One good experiment is worth a thousand expert opinions. 
  4. 4) The strong shall take from the weak, but the smart shall take from the strong. 
  5. 5) Take nothing on faith. Things are frequently not what they seem to be or what people tell you they are. Check everything. 
  6. 6) Excellence is the result of preparation, planning, imagination and tenacity. Neglect any one of these and the result is mediocrity. 
  7. 7) It’s often not that hard to handle a crisis, because usually your course of action is obvious. It’s how you deal with day-to-day living that really proves what you’re made of. 
  8. 8) Adversity doesn’t build character – it reveals it. 
  9. 9) You are what you do. 
  10. 10) Luck is the residue of design. 
  11. 11) The odds of success are never improved by excessive caution. 
  12. 12) Never let your sense of morality prevent you from doing what’s right. 
  13. 13) When you fully understand the simpler alternative, it usually will turn out to be as complicated as the complex alternative. Occam’s razor is usually a poor reason for making a selection, especially in biology. 
  14. 14) Only a fool is never afraid, but never let fear make the decisions for you. Do right, and risk the consequences. 
  15. 15) It’s nice to be first, but it’s better to be right. 
  16. 16) Create an environment where people can learn and have fun learning, and the work will take care of itself. The results are just the report card. 
  17. 17) Be your own toughest referee. Whenever you get a result that you expected or that you think you understand, always ask, “How might nature be trying to fool me?” 
  18. 18) Be generous to your coworkers, your colleagues and your collaborators. Give more credit rather than less, and err on the side of inclusiveness. It won’t cost you a thing, and it will gain you a lot. 
  19. 19) Underpromise and overdeliver. 
  20. 20) Fame is a bubble, popularity an accident, and money takes wings. The one thing that endures is character. 

Petsko and Ringe’s rules reflect another credo that I truly believe in: Life and science are not always fair, but we will all get what we deserve at the end of the day. All of us are part of a community of science, and it is the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s role to help bring us together. Let us all treat others as we would wish to be treated. Let us share reagents and share credit and honor each other’s accomplishments.

In the spirit of honoring one another, I am delighted to announce two new awards: an enhanced award in honor of Herb Tabor for his more than four decades of service to the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and a new award in honor of Mildred Cohn, the first woman to serve as president of ASBMB. Help us nurture our community by taking time to nominate a colleague for an award. And please share with us your own favorite credos!

Suzanne PfefferASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer ( is the Emma Pfeiffer Merner professor of medical sciences and a biochemistry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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