My father hoped that I would become a writer. An English teacher, he poured into my childhood mind a passion for nuance and narrative, rhyme and rhythm, image and intonation, allusion and alliteration. Imagine his dismay when, during my sophomore year in college, I announced that I was majoring in mathematics and biochemistry and planning a career in research. Both he and I assumed that in making that choice I was leaving the world of writing behind. Supportive father that he was, he secreted his disappointment in the form of a sonnet that I only found after his death.
I have come to appreciate once again the power of communication, of provocation and narrative and ideas and expertise colliding to drive us forward
Although my father didn’t know it, my decision to do research had been made some years earlier, when an acquaintance was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. I pored through my mother’s Physicians’ Desk Reference (she was training to be one of the country’s first nurse practitioners) to learn what I could of the disease, its diagnosis, and its prognosis. At the time, the respective answers were not much, easy to mistake for something else, and dire: she died within the year. A budding teenage idealist (a trait I never outgrew), I turned my frustration into ambition, and steered my career towards biomedicine.
With some combination of ability and determination, I enrolled in graduate school at the University of California, San Francisco, where I became attracted to basic research, to understanding the workings of a cell and the principles of embryonic development. I had the feeling then, and I can’t say from where it originated or whether it was at all accurate, that I had to make a choice between ‘interesting’ basic research and ‘clinically relevant’ research, and I chose interesting. And while I loved playing in the sandbox of my research project, I also found myself riddled with guilt. How was what I was doing actually helping people and society? How was I actually satisfying the drive that, according to my own myth of myself, brought me to research in the first place? Sure, I could spin a fantastic argument for studying embryonic development with the ultimate goal of understanding and perhaps even curing cancer, but these were just words on the pages of my postdoctoral fellowship applications. I didn’t really believe it, at least not in the visceral way I needed to in order to start my own lab.
For reasons I will share with you another time, I chose instead to leave the world of academia to become an editor at Cell. I thought this decision would disappoint my father, but instead he was delighted, considering it an inspired combination of my drives and inclinations. And along that path I have come to appreciate once again the power of communication, of provocation and narrative and ideas and expertise colliding to drive us forward.
In the years since, I have also had the good fortune to be able to satisfy the idealist within, most notably when I resigned my position as Editor of Cell to become the Executive Director of the Public Library of Science. Now, in a career shift that has surprised even me, I have returned to academia. It is an enormous pleasure to use my experiences and skills to benefit research: both locally, in my work as a faculty member of the Departments of Medicine and Cell and Developmental Biology, and as Director of the Center for Science Communication at Vanderbilt University (where I teach, among other things, scientific writing); and more globally, in my continuing activities as an editor. And because I’ve been an editor for a long time, I can now choose my projects carefully, and I am attracted to those that have the genuine potential to serve and accelerate biomedical research, to provoke progress.
Disease Models & Mechanisms is just such a project. As you will read in the Editorial by Matthew Freeman and Daniel St Johnston in this issue, the choice to launch this journal was not mine, but I immediately sensed its potential. I believe that the divide between interesting science and clinically relevant science is gone: there are now incredible opportunities for basic researchers interested in working on projects directly relevant to human health. We have come to understand that most basic mechanisms in biology are conserved, and we are beginning to untangle the roots of our diversity. Not only does the analysis of early embryonic development in a fruit fly help us understand what goes wrong in cancer, it also identifies the genes. My half-hearted postdoctoral assertions are now facts: model organisms have begun and will continue to play a major role in both the understanding of disease mechanisms and the development of novel diagnostics and therapeutics.
And yet, as a field, we are in our infancy. For those of us who are basic scientists by training, we are for the most part pretty ignorant of human health and the pathophysiology of disease. We may understand one organ or the organ system of one model organism, but we do not know how that organ differs from animal to animal or the connections and distinctions between similar processes, such as inflammation in cancer versus metabolic syndrome. We may understand saturation mutagenesis, but we falter when it comes to screening candidate drugs or understanding their pharmacokinetics. For those of us who are clinical scientists by training, we in turn must admit that modeling disease in a comparatively simple organism has great benefits. Although some are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, such as meeting a patient with a gene variant of interest, most must learn to appreciate the ability to genetically manipulate a model organism and carry the findings back to human subjects for validation and confirmation. How do we proceed?
The answer is that we communicate. We need to meet, literally and figuratively, at scientific meetings that cross diseases and model systems; in articles and conversations that educate, provoke and inspire; in institutes and departments; over coffee and on the web. The journal in your hands (or on your screen) is but one small contribution. Its success and the success of the field depend on you.
I am excited to be part of this developing community. What kind of community will we become? Will we be open and share our resources? Will we communicate our results to our peers prior to publication? How best can we encourage collaboration to thrive? DMM has the potential to help define and enable this community.
First, our founding editors and editorial board function both as flag-bearers for the journal and as exemplars for the field. These editors share an excellence in research and a desire to build a collaborative community. They also represent our diversity: clinicians and basic scientists in academia and industry. I welcome your suggestions for additional members of our editorial team.
Second, we hope the entire community will contribute to the journal, not just clinicians and senior investigators, but also students, fellows, funding agencies, and policy makers. We welcome submissions across all disease areas and all model organisms. Use the journal and its website to share resources and discoveries, ask questions, and initiate collaborations; we will work with you to ensure that your contributions are accessible to the widest possible audience.
Finally, through the establishment of a constructive and fair editorial process, we have set a standard for peer review that will enable the rapid dissemination of significant results. At DMM, we ask our founding editors and editorial board to define for the field what constitutes a significant contribution to the understanding, treatment, or diagnosis of disease. We ask our reviewers to concentrate on the strengths and weaknesses of the research, and its impact to and beyond the disease being studied. We ask that they resist the automatic impulse to ask for more, but rather limit their suggestions to those additional experiments necessary to place the findings on solid ground or stimulate further research.
I am pleased that the Company of Biologists is launching this journal, as I consider it among the very best of the not-for-profit and academic publishers. A UK-based charity run by biologists for biologists, it is driven by the desire to help research advance by encouraging collaboration and communication among scientists. In addition to its journals, it funds meetings and Travelling Fellowships, many of which are relevant to the readership of DMM. And this year, the charity group has decided to offer Research Presentation Grants to provide first authors of papers published in DMM the opportunity to present their work at a major scientific meeting. A history of the Company and an outline of its charitable work can be found in the Editorial by John Gurdon and Claire Moulton.
The purpose of this special issue is to introduce the concept of the journal with a selection of articles and a podcast from our contributors and staff. This issue contains only editorial content and reviews; research content will soon be published online and in our first full issue this fall. The front section of the journal is designed as a meeting place for the entire community; we encourage you to share your ideas and experiences with each other to challenge and inspire the field as a whole. A summary of all the article types can be found in the Instructions to Authors at the back of this Issue, but I would like to highlight three, which have in common their motivation to share ideas across boundaries. First, the ‘Clinical Puzzle’ will be written by clinicians to highlight an important disease that would benefit from the development of animal models and other basic research. In this type of article, a clinical case study will introduce the topic, which will be followed by a primer on the disease, a glossary of medical terms, and a list of possible research opportunities. Second, ‘A Model for Life’ will present an interview with a leader in this community, focusing on their research, approach to research practice, and inspirational ideas for future research; parts of these interviews will also be featured as podcasts on our website. Third, a series of Features will describe the various initiatives being set up around the world to help clinicians and basic scientists collaborate in an effort to move discoveries from the bench to the clinic more quickly. This series will be based on interviews with the leaders and participants in these initiatives, and should allow us to benefit from their experiences. We hope these unique sections prove inspiring; if any of our articles stimulate a new research direction or generate a new collaboration for you, please let us know.
And with this column, I am once again a writer. In the coming months, I will attempt to provoke and entertain you with a variety of subjects relevant to the practice and communication of research. In this regard, I feel a bit like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, finding my heart’s desire in my own backyard. My father would be very pleased.
Any new project is a journey, daunting and exhilarating all at once. I invite you to join me on this one, with your ideas and contributions, as an author, reviewer, editor or reader, by sharing your results at a meeting supported by the Company of Biologists, or by applying for a Travelling Fellowship to enable a collaborative project. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org