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One on one with... Geoff Wahl

Geoff Wahl

Geoff Wahl

A professor in Salk's Gene Expression Laboratory and holder of the Daniel and Martina Lewis Chair, Geoff Wahl has been involved in various aspects of cancer research for his entire 40-year career. At the Salk, he and his team are studying the genetic basis of the origin and progression of cancer and developing new strategies to tailor-make drugs based on the genetic signature of a patient' s tumor.

Recently, they discovered striking similarities between genetic signatures found in certain types of human breast cancer and those of stem cells in breast tissue in mouse embryos. These findings suggest that cancer cells subvert key genetic programs that guide immature cells to build organs during normal growth. Their work may provide new ways to predict and personalize the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

In a recent conversation, Wahl noted fundamental connections between his chosen career and his pastimes. One key: taking his time.

How long have you been a photography enthusiast?

Since the '70s. I used to develop my own film, and I earned part of the money I needed for graduate school by taking pictures at plays. I was dating a girl at Wellesley who was in Shakespeare performances there, and I took photos of her and other student actors because the parents couldn't always be present. It was all ambient light, no flash. I'd develop them in the darkroom of the biology/chemistry department at Harvard because, of course, I couldn't afford that kind of equipment. The most disconcerting thing I remember was watching a huge cockroach crawling across the developing stand one evening. Coming from California, I'd never seen a cockroach before. It was something between a rat and an insect. They're big!

Did you ever consider becoming a professional photographer?

Well, I sort of masqueraded as one for a while. After getting my Ph.D., I took some time to travel around the country with my camera. It was 1976, and I made my way to Plains, Georgia, because I sensed something was going to happen there, whether or not Jimmy Carter won the election. So I was hanging out with some other photographers one day, and they asked me which paper I worked for. I told them I was an "independent." They asked if I was going to Billy's house later to watch the election returns. I didn't know who Billy was, but I said yes, only I've lost the directions. Just hang out with us, they said. So that's how I ended up watching the election returns in the home of the president's brother.

You like to cook, too, and it's been said that cooks make good scientists. Do you agree?

Geoff Wahl

I can see how cooks would make good scientists—they're both mixing things together. The best chefs, you know, are the ones who understand the principles of cooking, then take those principles and apply them in an unusual way. That's similar to scientists. The best scientists not only read a protocol—the recipe—they understand why things are being done in that protocol. That way, if something goes wrong with the experiment, they can recover from it. That's important because an experiment can often take many months. If you can find your mistake early and proceed from there, then the project's not totally wasted. The most important thing about being a good cook and a good scientist is being able to adapt. You do the recipe once as given, then you modify it and do it again, always making sure you can generate results that are meaningful, reproducible and insightful.

What about photographers—do they make good scientists?

I think there are some similarities between science and photography as well, certainly in the old days when you were mixing chemicals and doing your own developing. Often we refer to scientific results as "beautiful," especially when something strikes you viscerally. As humans, we like to see things; we like to visualize what we've made. You know, the connection between the eye and the brain is the strongest computer available. And it seems that if someone can present something in a visually appealing way— simple yet elegant—then they must really know what they're doing. A good photograph, like a good experiment, should transport you to a different place of understanding.

So is that the key to successful science: transporting you to a different place of understanding?

There are three keys: the power and importance of observation; interaction and listening to others; and spending the time to observe. One of the problems with science today is trying to get things done very rapidly. Funding is so scarce; there's competition for limited resources. But sometimes working fast makes you blind to the jewels that are right in front of you, the jewels that nature is hiding. We need to take time, be more attentive.

At the recent Art and Science of Cuisine event, where you were a panelist, Deborah Szekely talked about spending time with your food, looking at it, tasting it and appreciating it. That applies to photography, too, right?

It does. You have to see, and you have to wait. A lot of people think the best light is at sunset, but they're wrong. The best light is after sunset; you have to be patient because something usually happens after sunset that you can use to your benefit to represent a certain mood. Most of my pictures I've not been happy with because they don't elicit the feeling I had at the moment I took the image. A photograph is not successful if it doesn't give you new insight into something you may have seen many times before or a sense of wonder and excitement about something you are seeing for the very first time. One of the addictive parts of science is being able to see or conceptualize something for the first time. It is a feeling like no other.

We think of science as being cutting edge, but doesn't history play a role?

It does, absolutely. We build on the observations of others. Back in the 1800s, you know, scientists had only rudimentary microscopes. They were very limited in what they could view. But they could see cells; they could see the shapes of cells. And they had plenty of time to observe things. Obviously, they knew about cancer, but they didn't know where it came from. It was Rudolph Virchow who enunciated the theory that "all cells come from cells." And it followed that if all cells come from cells, then cancer had to have come from the cells that preceded the cancer. Francesco Durante posited that maybe cancers come from this embryonic form that stays around and is later activated by whatever "humours" are in the body. You could read that to say, "Maybe there's a latent state of cancer that is activated by inflammation." He just didn't have the vocabulary to accurately describe what we now know. There are so many parallels between what these early scientists observed and what we're discovering to be true; so yes, history plays an incredibly important role in making us both appreciative of what our scientific ancestors generated and, in sort of a natural evolution of things, where we need to go next.

The science of the Salk Institute is often referred to as "basic" research, but you've said before that it's really an inadequate term. Why is that?

I think paying attention to the foundations of science puts it better because we all stand on the shoulders of giants. "Foundational science," we should call it. Basic trivializes the work that we do. We're investigating the very principles by which life works—when consciousness arises, the brain conceptualizes, the eyes see. How we relate to each other, how fundamental malfunctions arise: obesity, diabetes, cancer. Are these basic? No, these go much deeper. These are foundational issues. We must take the necessary time to examine the foundational issues of human biology; our future health depends on it. And that is why we have to solve the funding problem that is currently so threatening to the research enterprise in the United States.