Dr. Clint L. Makino is an Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. As a Principle Investigator for the Howe Laboratory at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Makino researches the electrophysiology of photoreceptor cells. Last summer, I had the opportunity to intern for Dr. Makino and conduct research in his lab. The following is an interview with Dr. Makino.
Q: What made you interested in the field of science?
A: Probably my parents as well as the parents of the kids who I played with growing up. Also the Boy Scouts. All encouraged an interest in nature, in finding out how things were put together, in figuring out how things worked and how to fix things if they broke. They also instilled in me a desire to find the answer to questions, even if it took a long time.
Q: Did you always know you would have a career in this field?
A: No, exactly the opposite. I started out as a psychology major (neuroscience was not even a course of study in those days) knowing that most psych majors did not get a job in psychology with a Bachelor’s degree. I therefore hoped to go to graduate school, but did not know whether I would be able to get in. I did get in to a very good laboratory with a great mentor, but there followed a period when I was not sure my project was going to work out. I also did horribly on my preliminary exam. Fortunately, I was able to pass both. I was lucky to secure an excellent postdoctoral position and did well. Even so, when it came time to look for a faculty position, I sent off a lot of applications and it was looking like the end of the line. Luckily, I finally got an offer at a really good place. Maybe I have low self esteem or am naturally pessimistic, but I never “knew” I would have a career in science. I wanted one and was willing to work for it, but I never considered it to be a sure thing.
Q: Have you had any experiences that made you want to veer away from science? If so, describe an experience.
A: Not really. I did have a bad experience, but it did not make me want to quit science. A prominent scientist that I respected but did not know personally invited me to collaborate on a project. I agreed. I explained what we would do but their role seemed undefined. So I suggested a simple experiment for them, thinking then that any paper could be coauthored by both of our laboratories. I also offered to have his postdoc visit us to talk about a paper he had recently published. He came and sat in for a few hours on each of two of our experiments that were going on simultaneously. After months of intensive experimentation, we obtained enough results to write a manuscript. We asked for their results and included them in an appendix. We sent the draft to them for comments giving them a deadline when we would submit. We got a few editorial comments back. Several weeks later, we sent it off to as we had said we would, to the journal Science. Science notified all authors that the manuscript had been received. Suddenly, everything changed. The professor was outraged. The postdoc claimed that we had submitted the manuscript without their knowledge, that he had participated in most of our experiments (an outright falsehood) and that he should be designated as the communicating author. They further demanded that all authors from each institution be grouped together as the order of authors listed in a paper carries some meaning. If we did not do as they demanded, they would see to it that we never published our results (here acknowledging that the results were indeed ours). The postdoc was looking for a faculty position and it was easy to see that he wanted a first or last author paper in a high profile journal to strengthen his application. Rather than do important research and write a paper for himself, he thought it would be easier to falsely inflate his contribution in a collaborative project by bullying. However, to this day, I do not understand why the professor supported his postdoc in such unethical behavior.
Q: How did you first get involved in scientific research?
A: There were three key things that happened to me. First, I found out that one of my volleyball buddies was a grad student in physiology. He invited me over to the lab where he worked and set up an electrical recording of a giant crayfish nerve. By voltage clamping the nerve, he could repeat classic Hodgkin-Huxley type experiments. Since I was very impressed, he urged me to find a lab and start doing some real research (as opposed to doing only cookbook exercises in various lab courses). Second, I took his advice. Several professors allowed me to participate in their research or do an independent research project in their labs. I tried psychophysics and electrophysiology and enjoyed the latter the most, even though I was not that good at it. Next, after graduation, I wanted to work in a lab as a technician before applying to grad school. Fortunately for me, a martial arts instructor that I had met before college helped find me a position as a biochemistry technician in a neuroscience laboratory with a former student of his. That worked out really well. I learned a lot of technical skills but was also exposed to the culture of science and the politics.
Q: What do you recommend for a college undergraduate student interested in science?
A: Two things. One-science is vast. Just because you find that you do not like one field of study or one kind of experimental approach is no reason to decide that you hate science. Try something else. Even better, try as many different things as you can. Two- get involved in doing hands on research. Too much of science in school is still bookwork, because of the necessity in establishing a strong database. But science is really about obtaining new knowledge and that happens in the lab.
Interview by Vanessa Lee