While most people relish spending the winter holidays with family, or on a beach, or just about anywhere other than work, Amy Rommel actually enjoys that time in the lab.
There’s no waiting for the tissue culture hood Rommel uses to prevent contamination of her cell samples. The slide scanner — usually booked days, if not weeks, in advance — is wide open. And she doesn’t lose time shutting down and gearing up her experiments again.
“The holidays are indeed a wonderful time to spend with family and friends, but it is also a wonderful time of year for getting some good science done,” said Rommel, a postdoctoral researcher who studies the genetics of brain cancer at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif.
It’s not just workaholics who feel the need to toil through the holidays. No one wants time-consuming experiments to be wasted or expensive equipment left idle. And sometimes, the extra effort between Christmas and New Year’s can bring a touch of holiday magic to the lab.
That’s what happened to immunologist Jim Allison at the University of California, Berkeley in 1995. Allison was studying a newly discovered molecule that’s found on the surface of immune T-cells. He sent a graduate student to test antibodies that block the molecule, known as CTLA-4, in mice with a lethal form of skin cancer. A few weeks later, the student was back with astounding results. The mice were cured — not just slightly improved, but totally cured.
Allison was gobsmacked. “Do it again,” he remembered telling the student, who, however had a plane ticket a few days later to go home for the winter holiday.
Too excited to wait for January, Allison asked the student to set up the experiment in another group of mice with melanoma, giving the drug to half of them — but not telling Allison which half.
While most people were celebrating Christmas, Allison went into his lab to check on the mice. The tumors were growing in every single animal. “I got really depressed,” he said, thinking his student’s results had been a mistake. But a few days later, in about half the mice, the tumors stopped growing. And in the days after that, their tumors shrank and disappeared. “At that point, I knew it was real,” said Allison, now at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
That discovery eventually led to a drug called Yervoy and spawned a new area of treatment — cancer immunotherapy — which is currently transforming cancer care. A second-generation of these so-called checkpoint inhibitors was recently credited for extending the life of former President Jimmy Carter.
Nowadays, however, a study like Allison’s might not have needed him to be there in person. Thanks to the work of scientists like Nicholas Stroustrup at Harvard Medical School, a lot of research is automated.
Stroustrup used to start the aging experiments he runs on nematode worms by mid-November. If he didn’t begin by Thanksgiving, he didn’t get a holiday break. Then, he found a better way. Stroustrup built what he calls the Lifespan Machine, an imaging and analysis platform that takes a picture of each nematode every few minutes. Now, he only has to be physically present in the lab for a week to set up the experiment. Then, he said, he can “let the machine do the rest.”
This week, with Harvard closed, Stroustrup is off guilt-free, celebrating the holidays and his dad’s birthday with family in New York City.
Rommel would rather work through the holidays. Last week, on Christmas Day, she was at the Salk for a couple hours, making sure her lab’s experiments didn’t have to stop. It didn’t feel like a sacrifice, though — Rommel still had plenty of time to celebrate with her husband, who’s learned to understand, if not accept, her scientific lifestyle. Ditto for her parents, who will have to wait for a visit until mid-January, when she’s planning a trip home to Dallas.
Of course, Rommel said, there are benefits to spending time away from the lab: clearing her mind and looking at her work with fresh eyes.
Stroustrup agrees. “I think vacations add value to the work you’ve done,” he said. “I don’t think anybody does their best work when they are tired and overworked.”