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Home PI eAlert Back Issues No. 61: Sharing My Secrets — Spotlight on Richard Ransohoff, MD

Jan 24

No. 61: Sharing My Secrets — Spotlight on Richard Ransohoff, MD

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My Research Career: Lessons Learned

In these interviews, PIs talk about defining moments in their careers, including advice received and given, successes, mistakes, and challenges.

Spotlight on: Richard Ransohoff, MD

Director Neuroinflammation Research Center, Department of Neurosciences of Lerner Research Institute; Professor of Molecular Medicine, Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western University; and Staff Neurologist in the Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis Treatment and Research, Cleveland Clinic.

1. How did you get into research? What motivated you?

To put it simply, curiosity. I was doing a medical residency and neurology residency, which meant six years in a row of residency. I wanted to break up the time and find out whether I was suited for and interested in academics. I bundled six months of time together and got a position in rheumatologic immunology and (studied) the inflammation of muscle. I knew where I wanted to be headed — I knew full research was where I wanted to be.

2. What was the smartest career move you ever made?

I don’t know if I’ve done anything smart. Several things I did were the result of being lucky. My choice of a postdoctoral mentor was good. I was interested in multiple sclerosis (MS), and at the time, I wanted to start from scratch and go for basic research. It was a good decision.

It was also a good decision to join the Cleveland Clinic when it started the molecular biology department, which led to my association with the Mellen Center, and that is arguably now the foremost MS clinic in the world.

It was lucky that I was elected to be a founding member of neuroscience department.

It was extreme good luck to stick with researching chemokines of the nervous system.

The worst?

Not sure that there have been. As a matter of personal philosophy, I believe that spending time wallowing in regrets is somewhat of a waste of time.

It’s unusual to spend your whole career in one place, and I’ve done that and I suppose that could be questioned. In Cleveland, I’m outside the real intense hotbeds of research activity. This is not Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., or New York. But it allowed me to think my own thoughts.

3. Tell us briefly about the best mentor you ever had, and what they did for you.

One was a senior staff member in molecular biology when I got there. He did me the honor of talking science with me and sharing his enthusiasm with me when I was new in field.

I learned a tremendous amount by “osmosing” what he knew. He listened to me when I talked about what I was doing and asked questions like: “What is the next step?” and “How would you develop it?” Everything he said turned out to be valuable, and it expanded my horizons. I was extremely focused about the technical aspects of what I was doing. I learned to pull my head up from the bench and think about the larger aspects of what I was doing.

I also had a postdoctoral mentor who was a supreme example of a dedicated scientist who cared about relatively little other than whether a person was doing good science. This mentor is an example of someone known in the community for one set of techniques, but he would use any technique imaginable to answer questions he felt were important.

The chairman of the research institute here when I was a junior faculty person was a distinguished scientist from whom I received guidance to focus on important questions and not allow myself to be distracted by doing something just for funding or quick publication.

The director of the Mellen Center is a long-time friend and colleague. He taught me by example not to take critiques of papers and grants personally.

4. As a mentor yourself, what’s the first piece of advice you give a new post-doc joining your staff?

I will often have a new post-doc get involved in writing a review article to learn that scholarship is as important as bench work. It is critically important to immerse yourself in the biology of your new project and to focus on the biology of the question you are asking.

5. Please name one or two managerial, ethical or personal principles that have helped you succeed.

The most important thing to me is that every person who works with me has a slightly different, individual set of motivators. At same time, my general belief is that inspiration works better than fear.

For an ethical principle, I encourage people not to overthink ethical rules. That is, if something looks smelly, it’s probably smelly. This mainly has to do with conflict of interest rules.

I think the articulation of ethical rules over time has gotten more elaborate and confusing. These rules are overly detailed and intricate. It reminds me of the Physicians Desk Reference (which includes prescription drug and health information for consumers). It lists so many side effects in no particular order and does not characterize them as to their severity and frequency, so people tend to just skip it (reading about side effects). We’re doing the same thing in our list of disclosures. We have to disclose everything we have done from grade school on, so people tend to skip over it.

I encourage trainees and colleagues to stay cognizant that, in our field as manuscript authors, manuscript reviewers and grant reviewers, we deal with conflict of interest every minute of every day. It is a critically important part of our profession, but it’s easier (to deal with) than it might seem if you use your moral compass. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.

6. If you could start over, what do you wish someone had told you?

As a general principle, I wish people in general better understood what science is. If you try to pick a creative field that will sustain you through your life with adventure, fun and wonderful colleagues, then science is it. When I was a kid, everyone wanted to be a rock and roll star. But if you really want to do something creative, fun and stimulating, then science is as good as it gets.

If I had known this, I might have done it sooner. I am a late starter. I wish I had started doing science it when I was younger.

A member of the band Queen (Brian May) just completed his Ph.D. in astrophysics (in 2008). He’s gone back to his first love. (May is now a visiting researcher at Imperial College in London, continuing his work in astronomy.)

7. What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The single best piece of advice I’ve received is to do work you think is important, particularly today with the frantic difficulties surrounding funding. There may be a temptation to do what might be fundable. It is important to survive, but it is important to do work that is compelling and important.

You will write most convincingly and speak most passionately about work you believe is important. This makes certain that your work is part of a great self-correcting system. If you do something important, it will be reproduced. Nobody bothers with it and it sort of sits there if it is peripheral and ephemeral.

8. What was your toughest funding challenge?

I had no problem at all getting my first K award or my first R01 (Research Project Grant). What I have in common with many people is I found it hard to renew my first R01. It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to sum up four or five years of work and project it forward. You’re no longer a new investigator, and no one gives you a break.

It is an unexpected challenge to keep a single line of research going credibly for that number of years. I did it, but it wasn’t that easy. I’ve had an R01 for 20 years and a program project for 15.

9. Do you see any new trends developing in the world of grants and funding?

Right now, we’re in a very severe, very dangerous and bad downturn in funding, and it involves most critically the National Institutes of Health (NIH). All the privates (funding sources) are having trouble raising money, and companies are cutting back. Philanthropy is strained.

I’ve always told everyone I know that I’ve been through several of these contractions, but they always ease up. This one has been the longest ever, and no one is talking about it easing up. If things don’t improve, our research leadership will go the way of our leadership in other things, such as the automotive industry, the steel industry, aspects of consumer electronics and aspects of clean energy technology.

The combination of tight research funding in the United States and of much more ambitious and thoughtful programs overseas along with the sense of severe paranoia of foreign students makes it difficult to get people to come here to meetings and to get foreign students. Why should they come here when they can stay home and do just as well?

There has been a growth of science and technology in India, China, Taiwan, parts of Eastern Europe and parts of Latin America. Some of that talent was educated in the United States. Of course, we want science to be more international. U.S. leadership has been a nice thing to have, but if we don’t get smart, we will lose it.

Science has been the leading venues of U.S. success. In some ways, a democratic capitalist society is a creative society in a real practical way, for science, and for medical science in particular. We generated the insights and turned them into treatments.

10. Is there anything a scientist can do to enhance his/her creativity? Can creativity be forced or hastened?

First, the old adage from Edison applies to this question: 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration. Essential groundwork to generate data, plus scholarship, is the foundation and necessity for creativity. Creativity has to be built upon a foundation of a very dense accumulation of your data and your scholarship.

I also believe you have to learn how to place yourself from time to time in a state of mind where you’re not anxious, not doing anything particularly practical to have a new insight. For me, it’s jogging and insomnia. Long ago, I learned that if I’m up at night thinking about stuff, I should stay up and enjoy it and then go to bed.

11. On the lighter side, what’s the most embarrassing thing you ever saw or heard of in a research lab?

One day, during my post-doc, I burned myself on dry ice and then, very shortly after that, I was handling a beaker, and I was working on a fairly high and hard stone bench. The beaker slipped out of my hands — probably because I had damaged by thumb with dry ice — and I reached to grab as it slipped and broke, and I got shards of beaker glass in both hands. I had to go to the emergency room. In real time, it was ridiculous. It was a real physical comedy pratfall.

12. Is a research lab a likely place for romance to blossom? Why?

I find romance can blossom anywhere there are human beings. Certainly, there have been romances that blossomed in research labs. In our lab group, we have a technician who is a young woman who is dating a guy who is a student in a lab we are collaborating with.

I have had a tendency to look very favorably on post-doc candidates who are married women with children. They are the most efficient and practical people in the world. They get things done.

13. Where did you grow up?

Cincinnati, Ohio

14. Where did you earn your undergraduate degree? Is there a moment from that time that stands out?

Bard College (Annandale, N.Y.) — B.A. in literature.

The alumni magazine was nice enough to write about me in their magazine a couple of years ago.

I think that the best thing I did as a literature major was, when I had a one-semester tutorial with a very good teacher and I read a translation of Hamlet into French by Andre Gide. I came to appreciate the enormous power of language structure to shape thought. It was a completely different play in French than in English.

15. Are you married? Yes.

Have children? Two.

Pets? No.

16. What do you read — to stay informed in your field and for pleasure?

To stay informed in my field, I put myself in the position to do a lot of reading as part of my editorial and reviewing duties. As associate editor for The Journal of Neurology, I handle infectious disease papers, and I read probably 400 papers a year. I’ve been in a study section for NIH for quite a few years, and I do some additional ad hoc reviewing for overseas agencies.

I’ve written and edited articles for Nature, Nature Neuroscience, Nature Immunology, The Journal of Clinical Investigation and so forth.

It is an effective way to stay up to date. I handle a broad portfolio of different kinds of papers. To do a decent job, you have to read. I do a lot of reading when I write articles and reviews. Writing 20 manuscripts a year forces you to do a lot of reading.

For pleasure, I read fiction almost exclusively. I travel a lot, and if I am going to a new or interesting place, I like to read something set in that place. When I traveled to Japan, I read Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, for instance.

I like to read the great short story writers, such as Deborah Eisenberg, Alice Munro and others. Some of my favorite fiction writers are Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth and John Updike. I will read Dickens or Flaubert again from time to time. I also read a fair amount of crime fiction if I like the writing. It’s often dense and atmospheric. Sometimes, I will re-read the Greeks. Bard College was heavily oriented toward the Greeks.

To read personal reflections by other scientists, go to our archives.

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Comments (1)
Professor, Kinesiology, Cal State LA
written by Daniel Frankl, January 24, 2011
I found the interview with Richard Ransohoff both inspiring and very appropriate to share with my graduate class (KIN 504 -- Research Design in Kinesiology) at Cal State LA. I have in previous sessions shared with my students stories about the research ventures of Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Harold Varmus. I am delighted to add the brilliant yet unpretentious Dr. Richard Ransohoff to my list of examples.


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