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If you like Bert Vogelstein's story, you might also like:
Keith Black,
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Francis Collins,
Gertrude Elion,
Judah Folkman,
John Gearhart,
Susan Hockfield,
Louis Ignarro,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
Robert Lefkowitz,
Jonas Salk,
Thomas Starzl,
John Sulston,
James Thomson,
James Watson and
Shinya Yamanaka

Bert Vogelstein's recommended reading: Miss Pickerel Goes to Mars

Bert Vogelstein also appears in the video:
Frontiers of Exploration: From the Cell to the Solar System

Related Links:
Johns Hopkins University
Nobel Week

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Bert Vogelstein
Bert Vogelstein
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Bert Vogelstein Interview (page: 2 / 4)

Cancer Researcher

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  Bert Vogelstein

What event was a turning point for you?

Bert Vogelstein: There were two turning points that decided for me what I eventually wanted to do. The first one was after I had finished medical school. I was an intern, learning how to take care of patients.

One of my first patients was a little girl who was diagnosed with cancer. Actually, I diagnosed her cancer. Her parents brought her into the clinic because she looked pale and she was bruising, and a few simple tests showed that she had cancer. The little girl was only four at the time, and the look on her parents' face is something that has indelibly etched in my mind. It was terrible in the sense that I couldn't tell them anything about their daughter's disease. I couldn't tell them 'why' or 'what.' I could offer some encouraging words about some therapies that may potentially help, but what they really wanted to know was, "Why?"

[ Key to Success ] Courage

The father of this little girl was a mathematician and I related to him quite a bit from my college days. And, he just wanted to know, why "my little girl" got this terrible disease, why her, and why this plague? And, I just shook up my hands. "I don't know, nobody knows." It's just this total black box, this thing that just struck people randomly, when they shouldn't be struck. And, right then and there it became clear to me that, if I wanted to spend my life on a puzzle, on a problem that I could apply my skills towards, that was going to be a good one.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

I knew it would be hard, and I knew I'd probably never get there. But, I thought, that's something you could spend your life doing and feel like you're trying to do the right thing, and trying to make a real contribution. And, if you're successful at all, you could obviously feel very good about what you've done.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

That was one turning point, but I still had to decide whether I should continue to see patients and practice medicine, or devote all of my energies to research. It was not something that I intellectualized about. Those kinds of decisions have to be made through experience. I tried doing both.

I found myself during the days seeing patients and during the nights going to the lab and trying to do a little bit of research. And, I found at night I was really happy. I felt stimulated. I couldn't wait to get to the lab at night so I could start experiments. I found them very intellectually challenging, and I liked playing with the toys. And at that point, I decided that this is what I enjoy doing best. And, this is probably the best way to be able to ensure, if I am going to make a contribution, that I will, by spending all my time doing one thing, research, rather than trying to treat patients and also do research. Those were the two events that most clearly shaped my future.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

What were some of the biggest obstacles you've had to overcome?

Bert Vogelstein: I joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins in 1978. Almost all biomedical research today is funded by grants from the government, from the National Institutes of Health. After I had worked for a couple of years, I applied to NIH for my first grant, which would have given me the funding that I needed to continue the experiments I was doing.

I was very disappointed that it did not get funded. Which means I didn't have the money I needed to continue in the way I wanted. There were some other sources of funding for my department that I used. And of course, I reapplied the next year. It takes about a year to reapply. I was very disappointed when I didn't get that one either. This was pretty serious, because it was twice I applied for funding and didn't get it either time. The reviews were critical. They thought that what I had in mind was not likely to be productive, or yield useful new information.

Bert Vogelstein Interview Photo
So I applied a third time, about eight month after that, which was the soonest I could do it. I was getting really worried, because there's only a limited time you can go in science without getting funded, or else you're going to be driving a cab or something. So this was really important to me. I asked them to change the reviewers that were reviewing it, because I thought maybe I'd have better luck with another group of scientists reviewing my application. They say three times are a charm, and I was really excited about this one, and then that didn't get funded. That was a pretty trying experience.

I wanted to study human cancers. I wanted to identify and clone the genes that were responsible for human cancers. No one had done it at the time. The senior people who were reviewing my grant thought it wasn't possible to do it, and these in general were very smart people. I talked to many senior scientists at the time -- Nobel laureates included -- and people said, "You can't do this from humans. You might make some progress if you're studying animal tumors or test tube tumors, but you just can't do it in people, and you should use your skills to do something else." That's why my grants were all turned down. But in my gut I felt that you could do it. With the new technologies that were just coming on board then, I believed I really had a chance of doing it. And that's what I wanted to do.

In fact, I didn't get a grant until I had actually done it, and proved to people that it was possible. That's part of the problem with granting systems. You almost have to prove that what you're trying to do is feasible before you can get funding to try it. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to get funding besides the standard way. People who are persevering enough, and dedicated enough, and really think that there's a light at the end of their personal tunnel will usually figure out a way to get there. Once you get there, funding usually isn't a problem anymore. That was the most trying period of my life, because there were several points at which I thought I wasn't going to be able to do what I really wanted to do, just because I couldn't get the funds to do it.

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 21:06 EST
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