Life has a way of surprising you. If you had asked me ten years ago what type of research I’d be doing now I would probably have said something like biochemistry, which is what I was doing at the time.
If you have never read my blog (in that case, where have you been?), I use flatworms, specifically planarians in my research. These are very interesting critters. I basically use them as animal models in pharmacology due to multiple advantages, but this is a story for some other time.
I knew very little about planarians, as much as any Bio major that has never worked with them would know. I was aware of their regeneration capacities, but not much else.
In 2001 I started my PhD work with Prof. George P. Hess, Cornell University, with a project on the biochemical pharmacology of neurotransmitter transporters. I was in an interesting situation, as I was the “resident biologist” in the research group of a hard-core physical chemist/biochemist! You see, physical chemists and biochemists (God bless them) usually do not tend to think very highly of biology. Too many moving parts, I guess…(:-)…
I was running a reference search circa 2003-2004 and I found a paper from 2001 published in the European Journal of Pharmacology (EJP). This paper described some aspects of behavioral pharmacology using planarians. I thought that it was pretty cool! I went to George very excited and told him that we should try to use planarians to test some of the compounds that we were working on from a biochemical point of view. Well, George was standing up. At about 6’4″ he easily towered over me. He said something like: “Well, when you have your own laboratory, you can play with them”. Guess what? That is exactly what I did! Incidentally, I try to remind him of this story every chance I get (I know, I’m a meanie). In all fairness, he was right, of course. At that time, if I’d started a project from scratch it would have finished my degree much later. Also, because of it, I was able to take the project with me as a new Assistant Professor. Since then, I have published several papers on planarian pharmacology, my latest one as a coauthor with the researcher who published the 2001 EJP paper!
I feel blessed (or very lucky, depending on your philosophical stance) that I had an advisor who did a great job. Moreover, he did it with my best interests in mind. I’d like to think that I am following his example when I train one of my own research students. Thank you, George.