Led by Curiosity: The Career of a Scientist
Interview with Joram Piatigorsky, Ph.D.
By Allyson T. Collins, M.S.
NEI Science Writer/Editor
Joram Piatigorsky, Ph.D.
Former Chief, Laboratory of Molecular and Developmental Biology
National Eye Institute
Joram Piatigorsky, Ph.D., was recently honored as scientist emeritus after spending 28 years at the National Eye Institute (NEI), most recently as chief of the Laboratory of Molecular and Developmental Biology. However, his time at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began in 1967, immediately after he completed his doctorate at the California Institute of Technology. His work has involved the lens and cornea of the eye, especially the evolution and molecular genetics of their crystallin proteins.
In a recent interview, Piatigorsky discusses his career achievements, his life's work, and his plans for retirement after almost 42 years at the NIH.
Looking back at your four-decade career, what achievement stands out?
If I had to pick one, I'd say that it was developing the concept of "gene sharing" beginning in the late 1980s. Gene sharing refers to a gene that produces a protein that has multiple molecular functions. For example, crystallin proteins accumulate in the lens where they bend light to focus on the retina. But the same crystallin protein from the identical gene, put into another tissue, often has a different function. The idea is that different biological functions can share the same gene, and calling this concept "gene sharing" focuses attention on the gene rather than the protein. While a certain protein might take on different characteristics in different tissues, its gene is the blueprint that stays the same regardless of the protein's functions.
What has been your most interesting research subject?
In 1984, I bought a book on vision in invertebrates, and when I went through this book, I saw the beautiful eyes of jellyfish. Who knew that jellyfish have eyes? This got me very curious, so I arranged to go to Puerto Rico to hunt down a species with well-developed eyes. The more I studied jellyfish eyes, the more fascinated I became.
Cubomedusan jellyfish. The dark spots near the bottom of the bell are the eyes. There are four such locations around the jellyfish, each containing several eyes.
Courtesy of Dr. Zbynek Kozmik.
Why are jellyfish eyes so captivating?
It turns out that they have a number of characteristics that are similar to vertebrate and even human eyes. Through our research, we took this visual system that was relatively obscure and raised it to what I consider an important research subject that provides new insights about evolution, eyes and the complexity of vision. It just goes to show you how you start with some curiosity, and it leads you to an unexplored, interesting terrain.
What's the most memorable lesson you've learned from your work?
In research, you can't expect to ask a question and then go in a straight line. Research doesn't work that way. You're constantly confronted with multiple paths, and you quickly discover that each question results in many others. As a scientist, if you become too restricted or feel that you have a strong handle on a situation, I think you're going to be seriously surprised. You might think that you are guiding the scientific ship, but it's more likely that the ship is guiding you.
How has science changed during your time at the NIH?
I believe that science today suffers from becoming overly goal-oriented. Science is interpretive. It's not an absolute set of facts that tell their own story. It is driven by passion and human ambition, and is ultimately a form of self-expression. Science at its most creative speaks to you in ways other than just data, and I don't think that this artistic, human element is sufficiently appreciated today. We lose a lot of highly creative, imaginative people who could have become valuable scientists but chose another field because they felt constrained, and many working scientists don't receive as much satisfaction as they could from performing the creative process of research.
You recently became a scientist emeritus. What's next for you?
I see myself as half-scientist, half-artist. I've always loved literature, and about 15 years ago I started writing fictional short stories and even a novella. It was a different and satisfying form of self-expression for me. In science, you try to be creative within the rules of nature. If you break those rules, you're a quack as a scientist. But with literature and other arts, you're allowed to create rules. Light can be dark. Time can go backwards. Writing fiction has actually helped my science because it freed my mind. As an emeritus scientist, I want to continue science in a broad way, but I also plan to devote a lot more time to writing fiction, and I imagine that my wonderful years as an NIH scientist will blend with my writing in unexpected ways.