My second Ph.D. student, Mohamed Noor, is the subject of a long profile in The Scientist, “Burgers and flies.” (The name refers to his legendary penchant for eating at McDonald’s.) It’s a good profile: Mohamed, who’s now a chaired professor at Duke, is immensely energetic and accomplished; I’m quite proud of him. He was sent to me by my own undergraduate adviser at William and Mary, the inspiring Bruce Grant, who also mentored a fair few evolutionary biologists, including Allen Orr (my first student) and Walt Eanes, a professor at Stony Brook.
Noor’s science is the centerpiece of the article, and I won’t reiterate that since you can read it for yourself. But here are a few other tidbits:
Stress relief. “For a while, my lab had pretty regular water-gun fights. I have a ton of huge water guns, so we’d go to my house, go into the backyard, and spray each other. It’s a good time to have a little fun and vent the frustrations of the day.”
In my lab, we used water balloons, which made far more of a mess. Often we’d go out on the roof armed with them, ready to pelt Allen Orr, who arrived at the lab the same time every day by the same route.
Find a Bruce Grant. “The single biggest piece of advice I give undergraduate biology students is to get into a close mentoring relationship with somebody. Nothing can have a bigger impact on your future than that. Work in their lab. Do research with them.”
There’s no substitute for a charismatic, enthusiastic, and empathic undergraduate mentor. Neither Noor, Orr, nor I would be scientists without Bruce’s help and inspiration.
I’m lovin’ it. “There’s a rumor on the street that I go to McDonald’s every day. I used to go once or twice a week, but lately it hasn’t been that often. I just disproportionally enjoy it every time I go. I also used to have an acknowledgement slide at the end of my seminars saying I acknowledge McDonald’s for caloric support. And I loved the Big N’ Tasty, but they canceled it. Now I get the third-pound Angus burger. That’s good too, but I still miss the Big N’ Tasty.”
Chez Noor. “I regularly post on Yelp.com, maybe once every couple of weeks. I like almost any kind of ethnic food. I love Greek and Thai, and Durham is amazing for Mexican food.” Noor has been designated an “elite” Yelp reviewer for the last three years, having posted more than 172 reviews, submitted 321 restaurant photos, and even hosted Yelp events in his home and at Duke. “In addition to reviews, it’s a social thing. Two years ago I hosted a ‘Tour de Taco’ at my house. We got tacos from a bunch of local restaurants, cut them up, and did a blind taste test.”
Like father, like daughter. “My kids are also foodies. When we would go out to eat, my daughter would always order crazy fancy things. Finally, I was like, ‘All right, you need to restrain yourself!’ So I raised her allowance a lot, but said, ‘Now, when we go out to eat, you’re paying your own way.’ So now she saves.”
And like father, like son!
Finally, this about his work in my lab:
By analyzing the breeding rates of the two Drosophila species, with individuals of their own species and with each other, Noor determined that natural selection does enhance the reproductive isolation of one species from another—the first experimental evidence of reinforcement contributing to species formation. He published the results in Nature in 1995, a year before he completed his PhD, and was the sole author on the paper. “My advisor, Jerry, had a general policy to let students be sole authors on papers. He said, ‘My job is to give advice. You have to come up with the project, you have to execute it, and you have to write it up. You’ve done all the work, so there’s no reason for my name to be on it.’ That’s uncommon in academia.”
He didn’t mention that I actually discouraged this work, figuring that the chances were slim that he’d find reinforcement. (“Reinforcement” is the evolution, via natural selection, of higher mating isolation between species in areas where their ranges overlap. When hybrids are inviable or intfertile, selection will act to impede their formation in areas where members of different species coexist). My policy of not putting my name on students’ papers is getting ever rarer as increasing competition for jobs and grants makes people put their names on papers to which they often make virtually no contribution. But I’ve found that it hasn’t impeded my own career: granting agencies such as the NSF and NIH fund you based not on the papers that sport your name, but on the number and quality of papers that come out of your lab, regardless of who’s an author.
I learned this authorship protocol from my own adviser Dick Lewontin, who learned it from his adviser, Theodosius Dobzhansky, who learned it from his mentor, Thomas Hunt Morgan (the doyen of 20th century Mendelian genetics). It thus has a long and honorable pedigree. (Dobzhansky sometimes designed the research, told his technician how to do it, analyzed the data, and wrote the paper—and yet the sole author was his technician! I remember meeting Dobzhansky the first time at Rockefeller University: he was,at the age of 72, sitting at the microscope scoring chromosome inversions in Drosophila pseudoobscura. He kept his hand in to the end.)
So while I have the chance here, let me repeat my mantra to professors and graduate students: If you’re a student, your advisor isn’t automatically entitled to put his/her name on your paper. Providing funding and advice is not sufficient reason. And if you’re a faculty member, don’t slap your name on your students’ papers if all you’ve done is given them advice and money. They lose by it, for the work will often be attributed more to you rather than the student (this is known as “the Matthew Effect“). I deplore the proliferation of gratuitious multiple authorships as a strategy for scientists padding their c.v.s.
On the other hand, the student does need to remember who’s boss:
Noor about to pull his boss in Trudy Mackay’s buggy. North Carolina, May, 2006