Golden opportunity

By Jef Akst Golden opportunity Donald Glotzer may hold the honor of being the world’s oldest “early career” scientist. Throughout his entire career as a surgeon, the thought of academic research became an itch Glotzer never had time to scratch. He had chosen surgery as his specialty thinking it would give him time to conduct laboratory experiments, but he quickly learned that he was wrong—surgery, he says, “was a total commitment

Jef Akst
Jef Akst
Feb 28, 2010

Golden opportunity

Donald Glotzer may hold the honor of being the world’s oldest “early career” scientist.

Throughout his entire career as a surgeon, the thought of academic research became an itch Glotzer never had time to scratch. He had chosen surgery as his specialty thinking it would give him time to conduct laboratory experiments, but he quickly learned that he was wrong—surgery, he says, “was a total commitment.” As a result, while he did publish a number of clinical and preclinical papers over the course of his career, he never got that academic experience that he had once imagined for himself. That is, until he retired.

At age 70, Glotzer officially bid his surgical career goodbye, and decided to spend his golden years in the world of academia. He interviewed a variety of other molecular and cell biologists in the Boston area to see if they thought it was a...

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Glotzer finally decided to join the lab of cell and developmental biologist Bjorn Olsen at the Harvard Medical School. “I was intrigued,” Olsen recalls. “He was clearly very committed to the idea of learning something about molecular science, which had not been possible when he was a surgeon.”

Partnering up with then-postdoc Elazar Zelzer, Glotzer began working on mice and a gene necessary for bone development, called Runx2. Using a reporter gene that showed where Runx2 was expressed, Glotzer noticed that it was showing up in the dermal papilla of hair follicles, “which has nothing to do with bone or cartilage or anything like that,” he says. It turns out “the lack of [Runx2] resulted in delayed hair follicle development,” Glotzer explains, “but more importantly it had to do with skin development as well,” involving the disregulation of sonic hedgehog—another signaling molecule in the skin (Devel Biol 315:459–473, 2008).

Now, more than a decade later, Glotzer, 81, continues to work nearly full time in the lab, and Olsen couldn’t be more pleased with his contributions. “He asks questions that the postdocs and students would not ask because they do not have his experience,” Olsen says. “He can bring any discussion into the context of human disease in ways that no one else can.”

Olsen was so enthused by Glotzer’s involvement in the lab, he even suggested that he apply for an NIH postdoctoral fellowship. He was hopeful that the NIH reviewers would see that his lifelong career as a surgeon had given him “an enormous amount of experience with problems related to human disease and human pathology.” Unfortunately, the NIH did not fund the application, arguing that they could not see what career opportunities this fellowship would bring.

“I was a little bit disappointed,” Olsen admits. In addition to funding Glotzer (whose official title is “research associate”) for “as long as he could be active and contribute,” Olsen had also hoped that Glotzer’s case would be an example of a new kind of scientist. “Many scientists do wonderful science between the years 70 and 85, perhaps even 90,” Olsen says. “Why wouldn’t one want to include them in active research projects in laboratory?”

But Glotzer doesn’t mind the lack of pay, he says. While future grants may allow the lab to support Glotzer with at least a part-time salary, for now he thinks of it as a “quid pro quo” endeavor—he helps out in the lab in exchange for the gift of knowledge. “My main goal was to learn something about molecular biology and cell biology,” he says. As far as how long he plans to continue his academic adventure, “I have always continued to call this a terminal sabbatical,” he says, “meaning I’ll be here until I die.”