C. Ron Yu’s first passion was not biology. Growing up in the city of Hangzhou, near Shanghai, Yu was fascinated with quantum mechanics and relativity. He fondly remembers the first experiments he performed in his high school’s physics lab using instruments that dated to the 1940s. “The lab was nothing compared to what you can find in US schools,” he says. As an undergraduate at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Yu worked to embed biosensors into lipid membranes. The project spurred his interest in applying physics to biological systems, and he went on to major in biology and minor in physics. From there, he studied the biophysical properties of nicotine receptors as a graduate student at Columbia University, using an electrophysiology rig that he built from the ground up. Although he contemplated a postdoc in Germany, Yu stayed at Columbia while his wife wrapped up her PhD work in the U.S. One of his dissertation committee members, Richard Axel, who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize for cloning the first odorant receptor, invited Yu to try out a project with him in the meantime. “Before I knew it, I was his postdoc,” says Yu. The position—investigating the formation of neural circuits in the olfactory system—lasted eight years, after which he started his own lab at Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri. He now studies mammals’ behavioral responses to pheromones, which is the topic of his feature article “A Pheromone by Any Other Name.”
Sensory scientist Richard Doty first became excited about science when he took a psychology class at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. “I enjoyed the concept of the field—it was a nodal point for all kinds of exciting things,” he says, “from animal behavior to the human brain.” He subsequently graduated from Colorado State University, and went on to do a master’s degree at California State University, San Jose, in conjunction with NASA’s Ames Research Center, where he studied space flight and the sensitivity of the vestibular system to low-levels accelerations. During his PhD studies at Michigan State University, Doty discovered a scent gland in the belly of field mice and other wild mouse species that secretes sebum used in territorial marking. This led him to the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied odor communication in dogs. In 1980, he and his colleagues received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to set up the first clinical research center focused on the study of smell and taste at University of Pennsylvania. Doty is well-known for his invention of the University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test. Among other applications, the self-administered scratch-and-sniff test has shown how smell loss can herald Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, which Doty writes about in his feature “Smell and the Degenerating Brain.” He is also author of seven books, including The Great Pheromone Myth.
Robert Perlman grew up around the University of Chicago, studied there, and is now a professor emeritus at the same institution. His father was a surgeon and faculty member at the university’s medical school. Perlman started college after his sophomore year of high school as part of a University of Chicago program for young entrants. He enrolled in his alma mater’s medical school immediately after graduation to avoid the draft, and stayed on at the university for a few years to do research before heading off for his internship and residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. He then got a commission in the public health service and studied bacterial genetics at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At the NIH, he helped to discover the role of cyclic AMP in regulating bacterial gene expression. Perlman never made it back into clinical medicine. He taught at Harvard Medical School and the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he did research on the biology of adrenal chromaffin cells, before returning to the University of Chicago. In the 1990s, while serving as dean of biological sciences, Perlman became hooked on thinking about evolution and its connections to human biology and medicine. That topic became the focus of his recently published book Evolution and Medicine, discussed in his essay “Dr. Darwin at the Bedside.”
Academic research could be strengthened by thinking more and doing less.