That’s the way Joel treated me. (To Joel): I remember your telling me that if I had any questions, or wanted any advice, to come to you. But you were never going to offer it. So, I found that worked.
And see, I didn’t invent that position. I learned it from Allan Bass.
What I remember was coming back from Virginia and trying to imagine how many of my lab team I could recruit with me… and feeling heavy from the burden of a move. And in my departmental mailbox there was this letter to each member of the faculty from Joel that he was stepping down as chair. I don’t remember any “two-year” piece in it, by the way. And this news was way too much. The Chair of Biochemistry was open, and there were many of us who felt “who would come to Pharmacology to be Chair, without knowing who the Chair of Biochemistry would be.”
So you’re saying there was no whisper to you at all during those weeks? You didn’t have a clue?
I remember coming back and being rocked by the news of Joel’s retirement.
And David’s leaving was common knowledge.
It is hard for me to fully reconstruct it. It was not immediate, at least not that I recall, that Dean Chapman and Ike Robinson began engaging me in conversations about leading the department. And negotiating for resources was a delayed process. I had some concern that Ike Robinson did not have high opinions of pharmacology departments, based on his Duke experience (he and I had both spent time at Duke; I was in the Biochemistry department there). And I was also fully aware of the limitations of coming from the “inside,” and what that might mean for the department getting the appropriate resources, based on their standing within the institution.
What was it like having Joel, the former Chair, still at Vanderbilt?
It was a blessing! (To Joel) I remember your telling me that if I had any questions, or wanted any advice, to come to you. But you were never going to offer it. So, I found that worked for me, and I can tell you at the outset I DID have questions, and we met regularly for a while.
And see, I didn’t invent that position. I learned that from Allan Bass.
So, Lee, what was your impetus for wanting to focus your recruitments on bringing in the next generation of neuroscientists?
I think that there were two interdependent reasons. First, there was some existing strength in Pharmacology in neuroscience, and there was certainly an interest and expertise among many schools at Vanderbilt. So that strength had to be nurtured by bringing in young scientists with novel strategies and interesting new questions into our environment. Second, Pharmacology is a natural home for neuroscientists, particularly when there is not an independent Department of Neuroscience. Together with the loss of several faculty from Pharmacology who had been at TNI, as Joel alluded to, it was easy to convince Ike Robinson and Dean Chapman that this was a critical need and area for opportunistic investment.
How did you go about this recruiting? Did you have certain strategies?
The first attempts for recruitments in neuroscience, broadly speaking, did not go well. Part of it was my lack of focus, or perhaps confidence… alternating between new tools that we needed to integrate into the Medical Center environment, overall (such as homologous recombination in mice, genetically tractable experimental systems) with scientific questions being posed by faculty candidates that were of interest to faculty who were already members of the Pharmacology department. However, these early missteps did teach me that we needed to bring our faculty up to speed on exciting and important new questions being asked by neuroscientists that had relevance to our existing faculty and their research programs. To that end, we used our Pharmacology seminar series for a year and a half as a venue to invite leading neuroscientists who were luminaries in the field- not junior faculty candidates- to lay out the important questions, and grow our shared vocabulary in this field in terms of biology and methodology. Now when we invited folks as faculty candidates, they were impressed with the penetrating and informed questions that our faculty asked during their one-on-one interviews, even if their own interest was not in the nervous system.
How did you persuade Randy Blakely to come?
That took two years. I didn’t give up. I just loved the way his mind worked.
And you knew that from reading his papers?
Partly. It was a recurring reminder of the creativity and rigor, whether I was reading some of his published work, talking to him at a poster at meetings, or listening to his seminars and the way he asked questions, experimentally, or addressed questions, after the formal part of his seminars. Randy’s undergraduate degree was in the humanities and the classics; it was not in science. He did some postgraduate training in Greek, for example. As a graduate of a liberal arts college, that made me salivate. His breadth of perspective is obvious in the way he thinks, still. Just when you think that what he is doing and discovering is becoming “routine,” something else out of the blue comes up. He just can’t keep himself from discovering things.
Kind of like Jack Roberts.
Exactly. You will have a relatively quiet period, followed by “well, here we go again… another discovery”! I always think of Phoenix, Arizona, before all of the building there. That will be the landscape… and then, Jack Roberts will make an entirely unexpected observation that he doesn’t ignore but explores. Randy is the same way. They are just phenomenal, these guys.
But how did you get Randy to move so soon after setting up his lab at Emory?
The amazing thing about Randy, which I came to understand in about his fourth visit over two years, was that he wanted to get involved in leadership beyond his own laboratory. This was so different from me at my stage of his career (Randy had only been an assistant professor at Emory for 2-3 years ). When I was a junior faculty member, if I had not had that protected time, I would have just self-destructed. That was one of the reasons I didn’t accept a faculty position at Brown University. They had expectations for multiple undergraduates to be in the lab, and I could just see myself becoming so involved with the undergraduates (because I do love teaching and had been so spoiled as an undergraduate student doing independent research as a college student) that I would never have gotten my research done.
Randy, on the other hand, was very interested in our plans to develop, over time, a Center for Molecular Neuroscience. I remember walking up the stairwell in the half-built MRBII building with him, with our hardhats on, during the final recruiting visit. And Randy said, “I want to lead that Center”
How did we get Randy? He was recruited to Emory as the first of many planned Woodruff Scholars in Neuroscience. However, the funds got diverted; he was the first and the last. He was cynical that our proposal to launch a Center in Molecular Neuroscience would have the same fate. And he truly wanted to build something. Randy loves to build things and motivate people, and he still does. Though by that time we had already recruited two junior neuroscientists, Todd Verdoorn, from Sakmann’s lab (later recognized with the Nobel Prize) in Germany, and Ron Emeson, from Ron Evan’s lab at the Salk, Randy was key in bringing together a critical mass of folks to create a Center with exciting programs and certainly a synergistic impact on the work of many investigators, including some outside of the medical center.
He must have been offered a Chair somewhere.
But he didn’t want to take something over, to go anywhere that was already established. He wanted to build something from scratch.