Those Eureka Moments Glisten: A Conversation With Robert A. Weinberg, PhD

Beth Fand Incollingo @fandincollingo
Published: Monday, Aug 01, 2011
Robert A. Weinberg, PhD
Robert A. Weinberg, PhD

When Robert A. Weinberg was a boy, he loved dissecting what was complicated and figuring out what made it work.

When he wasn’t taking apart electric trains, he was studying genealogy, tracing the branches of his family tree.

But during those years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Weinberg had no idea where that passion might lead him.

He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) because friends of his parents had gone there. He pursued medicine because “in those days, young Jewish boys became doctors” and switched to biology when he made the alarming discovery that “doctors had to stay up all night taking care of patients.”

“I’m not a person who’s planned out his course in life,” said Weinberg, 68, a renowned oncology researcher whose work has changed the world’s understanding of cancer. “I just stumble from one steppingstone to the next.”

Through a combination of talent and circumstance, that series of stumbles has coalesced into a long and successful career for Weinberg, a member of the US National Academy of Sciences who was presented with the National Medal of Science by President Bill Clinton in 1997 and named Scientist of the Year by Discover magazine in 1982 .

Robert A. Weinberg, PhD

Oncogene Research Blooms

Weinberg’s discovery of the first cellular oncogene in mammalian cells, Ras, provided researchers with a deeper understanding of cancer that helped pave the way for the growing tide of targeted cancer therapies. Weinberg and his colleagues made another landmark discovery when they became the first to figure out what makes a normal, dormant gene change into a virulent oncogene. His lab also discovered the tumor suppressor retinoblastoma protein, opening the door to the isolation and study of genes that prevent the onset of cancer.

In 2000, Weinberg shared his comprehensive insights into what makes cancer cells abnormal by co-writing the seminal paper “Hallmarks of Cancer,” the most cited Cell journal article of all time.

“I’m driven by trying to figure things out,” Weinberg said. “It’s an unrelenting drive leading to occasional ‘eureka’ moments, with a lot of grunt work in between.”

Weinberg is director of the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology at MIT, where he is also a professor of biology. He joined the staff of his alma mater in the early 1970s, when he became part of its newly formed Center for Cancer Research. Nearly a decade after that, Weinberg became a founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his lab remains.

Although Weinberg says he hasn’t “touched a test tube in 30 years,” he attends scientific meetings nearly every day in his own lab or with other colleagues to discuss results, offer critiques, and suggest additional experiments. To support that work, he wades through a constant “blizzard of e-mails” and edits the manuscripts of the researchers who work in his lab.

Lately, Weinberg has devoted a lot of time to revising a work of which he’s very proud: his 2007 graduate-level textbook, The Biology of Cancer. He gives talks at about 25 scientific meetings each year, and at MIT he spends about 15% of his time teaching half a course in introductory biology for undergraduates, along with half a graduate course in cancer biology.

In front of the classroom, Weinberg likes to entertain his undergraduates by revealing that he got a “D” in introductory biology, a course he didn’t enjoy when he took it at MIT. And he passes on this wisdom: “Most of the young people in high school have the conviction that biology is all about memorizing facts, when, in fact, it’s a very logical science with a lot of interesting questions that remain unexplored. It’s a very intellectually challenging field.”

While Weinberg wasn’t excited by his initial coursework during his days as a biology student, he found himself in the right place at the right time.

“The revolution in microbiology was just erupting,” Weinberg said. “As a junior, I was exposed to the genetic code, which was just being deciphered. All of a sudden it got very interesting, so I became interested in a serious way in the new biology— molecular biology—[and] in taking apart complicated things into their component parts, just like taking apart old electric motors.”

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