Finally getting an answer to a question (and a profile on an interesting scientist)

August 9, 2013 § 3 Comments

Virginia Lee

Some stories just take a long time to be born. This month’s issue of ASBMB Today has a profile I did on Virginia Lee, the director at the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the University of Pennsylvania. This profile was more than 10 years in the making.

I first met Virginia when I was a green-behind-the-ears graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. I don’t recall the exact year, but I’m guessing it was around 2000, and so I must have been in my second year of graduate school.

My thesis adviser, Jan Hoh, had invited Virginia to give a seminar at our department because Virginia was working on a protein called tau, which belongs to the family of microtubule-associated proteins and forms neurofibrillary tangles in a number of neurodegenerative diseases.  My thesis project focused on deciphering the biophysical properties of tau and another microtubule-associated protein called MAP2.

We had a hypothesis that these two proteins were intrinsically unstructured and formed polymer brushes on microtubules to keep microtubules properly spaced apart from one another in neurons. (Note that I was working on intrinsically unstructured proteins way before they became the hot topic they are today.)

I don’t recall a word of Virginia’s seminar, but I never forgot the impression she made. She commands attention in a room. She is articulate, sharp and charming. As a young and inexperienced graduate student, I was intimidated by her because I felt I couldn’t measure up to this confident and charismatic woman.

Lee already had spent some time chatting with Jan about the work we were doing on intrinsically unstructured proteins, so, when Jan brought her over to meet the members of the lab, I immediately clammed up (very unusual for me, as my family and friends will attest). I was terrified I’d say something stupid, so I let the more senior graduate students and postdocs do all the talking.  I simply sat there, to her left, watching her in profile as she talked.

I don’t remember how the subject came up, but the only thing I do recall Lee saying was that she trained as a concert pianist in London before becoming a scientist. She said it in passing, and the conversation moved on.

But I did a double-take and stared at Lee. I trained in piano for 10 years, going through the U.K.’s Royal Schools of Music syllabus and exams. I got as far as grade 7 before I quit.  I knew how rigorous and hard it was to get even as far as the last grade, grade 8, of the syllabus, let alone beyond. At that point, I was awestruck and even more intimidated by Virginia.

But my curiosity was aroused. How do you go one route and then switch to a different route that is seemingly unconnected to the first?

Fast-forward now by 10 or so years to March of this year. Virginia’s group published a Journal of Biological Chemistry paper that was selected as a Paper of the Week. I am responsible for writing the summaries of these papers. Seeing Virginia’s name on the paper took me back to that day in graduate school when I heard her say she once trained as a pianist.

On a whim, I looked up Virginia in ASBMB’s member directory. There she was, a member of the society, giving me the green light to approach her to do a profile for the membership magazine.

And finally, more than a decade later, I learned how she went from being a pianist to a scientist.

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