Jonathan Slack grew up in London collecting fossils and playing with lab equipment that his chemist father brought home. He received his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from the University of Oxford and his PhD from the University of Edinburgh. “I felt molecular biology as it was then was very dull,” Slack says. He briefly considered a career in forensic science, but his interest was piqued by “a terrific collection of embryological journals” in the Edinburgh zoology department library. Slack dove into reading the journals and found that “it seemed there were a lot of very interesting problems, which nobody had looked at for many decades,” he says. After developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert gave an exciting talk at Edinburgh, Slack decided to pursue a postdoc in Wolpert’s lab at Middlesex Hospital Medical School. From there Slack launched his work on developmental patterning and later discovered the role of fibroblast growth factor during vertebrate embryonic development. His research took him first to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now Cancer Research UK), then to the University of Bath, and, finally, to the University of Minnesota, where he directed the Stem Cell Institute until 2013. Slack’s most recent work focuses on cellular reprogramming, which is the topic of his feature, “A Twist of Fate.”
Didier Raoult was born in Dakar, Sénégal, where his father had a research unit focused on tropical nutrition. Science was inescapable, even then, since “the first floor was the lab, and the second floor was the house,” he says. Living with his family in Marseille, France, at the age of 18, Raoult says, “I tried to escape my destiny by sailing for two years.” But he soon returned to France and enrolled at the University of Medicine in Marseille, where he completed a medical doctorate. As a resident, Raoult was interested in infectious disease, but he found that “the diagnostic tests were terrible” for rickettsial diseases, so he completed a PhD in bacteriology at the University of Montpellier. From there he headed to a postdoctoral fellowship in the lab of Gregory Dasch at the Naval Medical Research Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Raoult then returned to Marseille, where he is now a professor and runs the Rickettsia Research Unit at the University of Medicine. He laughingly describes his path as circular—his research program now has a branch studying infectious disease in Sénégal—and still identifies with the curiosity-driven sailor he was at 18. “It’s a good time to discover things,” Raoult says. In his feature, he writes about what recently identified megaviruses and the virophages that infect them can tell us about early life on Earth and whether it’s time for a reclassification of living organisms to include viruses.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Aaron Goldman “was always curious about how the world worked,” he says. He entered Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania as an astronomy major, but during his freshman year, he gravitated toward biology, especially astrobiology and the origin of life. After graduating from Swarthmore with a biology major and an astronomy minor, Goldman taught high school in New Jersey for three years. Then he headed to the University of Washington, where he earned a PhD in microbiology and a graduate certificate in astrobiology, doing computational research in the lab of Ram Samudrala, while also working closely with oceanographer and astrobiologist John Baross. Despite an enjoyable side gig as keyboardist in a touring rock band throughout grad school, Goldman decided to stick with science. He next worked as a postdoc in the lab of Laura Landweber of Princeton University. “The goal of my postdoc was to create a tool that could make studying ancient life a little more seamless through [the use of] bioinformatics and computational biology and [the integration of] a lot of different types of data into a single framework,” he says. Goldman achieved his goal with the development of the database LUCApedia. He is now an assistant professor of biology at Oberlin College in Ohio. In a Thought Experiment Goldman writes about our new understanding of the last common universal ancestor (LUCA) and what such knowledge tells us about the evolution of life on Earth.
Academic research could be strengthened by thinking more and doing less.