She Said He Said: Ben Glick

Who are the people riding the next wave into the future of science and research? We at Next Wave are eager to find the answers to that question and we thought you might be, too. So, I made a trip to the beach, so to speak, and there I found a surfer taking a break and reading Italo Calvino's Difficult Loves ...

That isn't really where I found Ben Glick, assistant professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago (UC), but he is surfing toward tenure, and the Calvino book is one of his favorites.

I spoke recently with Glick by telephone from his office at UC, and during the conversation there emerged a portrait of a scientist as a human being. Here are some of the facets of that portrait:

Early works

Let's hear it for high school science fairs--specifically those sponsored by the public school system in Orange, Massachusetts, that led Glick on to state science fairs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And that's where one project--best introduced by way of a riddle--cinched Glick's decision to pursue science. So, here's the riddle: What do vertebrates have in common with the fraternal order of Masons and the pyramid on the dollar bill?

OK, time's up. ... Here's the answer: A third eye.

For one of his science fair projects, "Median Eyes in Vertebrates," Glick masked the extra eye in a chameleon-like lizard, and voila, was able to demonstrate that the eye actually does affect behavior.

At that point, believes Glick, came his first thrill with the power of the experiment.

Glick's journey from there to the questions that now occupy him, on the molecular biology of the Golgi apparatus, is sprinkled with crumbs of inspiration and a healthy measure of doubt.

Inspiration and perspiration

Glick knew from the age of 8, when he began heavily reading science fiction gleaned from his hometown library, that he was headed toward science. Glick's parents, both social scientists, provided an environment in which he could begin to hone his thinking skills.

That is just what Glick continued to do during his undergraduate days at Amherst College--a great place to learn, he says, because of the strong emphasis on teaching and the high quality of the teaching faculty. Glick counts that experience as "inspirational" in that it pointed him toward the process-oriented teaching methods he now practices.

At Amherst, Glick's neuroscience major allowed him to pursue an interdisciplinary program in chemistry, biology, and psychology, which launched him into a Ph.D. program in biochemistry at Stanford University, under the tutelage of Jim Rothman, now at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York. Despite finishing his Ph.D. in the relatively short period of 5 years, Glick initially felt that his teaching-oriented undergraduate training put him "behind most of his colleagues" with respect to experience in a research laboratory.

Glick recalls that "graduate school was a shock to me as it was to most people" because of the overall lack of structure. Prior to graduate school, Glick considered himself a good student, doing well on tests and achieving high grades, so it took some time to get used to "not getting results for the first 2 years."

Now using his Amherst teachers as examples, Glick enjoys the rewards of teaching undergraduate and graduate biology, although he admits it "takes time" to do it the way he feels it should be done. Glick's strong foundation in the art of teaching serves him well in his present position because, even though UC is a major research institution with a graduate student population twice that of its undergraduate population, he reports that teaching is taken "very seriously."

Greener grass?

In a period of doubt about the research life, Glick found himself in a bookstore flipping through Barron's Guide to Law Schools. It didn't take much to send him head-long back to the lab: Upon reading that the first year of law school involved a course on property law, Glick's reaction was: "I can't do that."

Other hard-won lessons included learning to mesh his personal life with his professional life. Glick reports that when he started a life in research, striking a balance between work and play "seemed simple," but he soon discovered it to be "very complicated."

But the bumps in the road, says Glick, are smoothed by the main lesson he has learned, "the really nice thing about this profession," as he puts it, is the opportunity to be "very creative." Glick feels that society in general does not support creative work and that scientists are in a special position to express their creativity and get paid to do it, as long as they are willing to pay the price of hard work. Glick admits that the life of a scientist is "certainly not for everyone," but now feels certain he has made the right career choice.

If he had any advice to give his peers and those coming up through the ranks of graduate school and postdoctoral training, it would be: "Do things that are interesting and unusual." Because, he feels, it takes as much time to do something interesting as it does to do something uninteresting. And, as Glick points out, if it's interesting, the job is much more satisfying.

The whole is greater than ...

Perhaps Glick can best be summed up by some of his own favorite lines from Robert Frost's Two Tramps in Mud Time:

"My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight."

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