Humans of Biology: Dr. Robert Cumming

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Q: What is the greatest challenge you have experienced in your life or career?
A: Well, I think getting through my undergraduate education and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, that was a tough one! I think a lot of students face this challenge; we don’t quite know where to start, and we don’t know where we’re going to end up. At one point I thought of going to medical school, but then I realized that wasn’t the path for me, so I started working in a lab during the summer and I found that more interesting. Later I was faced with the decision of going to grad school, and the difficult part was getting through graduate school. Graduate school came with a lot of failure but still I pulled through and finally made it. I got my PhD, went to work in San Diego for 6 years, and had a job that was completely unrelated to my degree. I did that because I realized that my degree was not for me. After I went to San Diego, I knew that I had to switch dreams altogether and that’s when I realized that my interest was in Alzheimer’s disease. So getting up to speed on that was challenging. You know, each stage was a challenge and to get to this level is really difficult; there are a lot of setbacks, a lot of failure, but you move beyond it. What I find in science and in anything in life is that you ride the wave—it goes up and goes down, but the down periods don’t last forever—like anything in life.

Q: Do you think that med school is a good goal for students?
A: It’s a good job. If you like people, then it’s for you; if you don’t like people, then don’t go to med school. In med school, you get to have one-on-one interactions and see the people you’re helping, you don’t get that in research. In research, you have the potential to affect many people, but you don’t necessarily get all that feedback. You may say that you’re doing something incremental and pointless, but one thing about science is that it takes a lot of little discoveries by many people, which is then culminated and assessed, to produce massive change that may at first glance be not so apparent. In clinical research, you work with people, you test things and try to see if your hypothesis is true or not, which can be very intellectually stimulating. On the contrary, in medicine you’re kind of doing the day-to-day routine, but it’s rewarding too because you’re helping people. They both (med school and research) do allow you to help people, but in different ways.

Q: What is the best question you’ve received from a student? What was the most thought-provoking question?
A: When students ask, “How did you know you were going into science, and how did you know it was the right thing for you?”. It’s not an easy thing to answer right away. Nobody is born a scientist. Everybody is born with curiosity, somehow some more than others, so curiosity is key. But you have to learn to become independent; you’re not going to become a good scientist if you’re smart and know the literature but you can’t create something new. That’s what makes people succeed in science, generating new ideas. You can’t be taught to generate ideas, you can try to guide students to think outside of the box but it’s really hard to make them come up with their own ideas.

Q: So does that mean some people aren’t made for research?
A: Absolutely everybody can do it to some extent, but to do it well… It’s a bit of an art form, I consider it an art form; there is a dexterity involved with it. There is also thinking about what you are doing—it’s not a recipe. You know, the people that can do it but are not meant for it are just following directions, they’re not thinking and they’re not seeing the bigger picture. So when I ask, “why are you doing this?” and a student responds, “well, professor Cumming told us and we’re just doing it”. NO… Don’t… That’s the wrong answer. Why are you doing it? Are you doing it simply because you want to learn the techniques? I’m more impressed with a student who wants to apply them to address the question. There are just some students that are too… too book smart. They always say stuff like, “I want to know the answer, what’s the right answer”. But science is not like that!

When I started working in a lab, back in the summer of 1989, this doctor told me that he studies neuroblastoma and he asked me to come up with a hypothesis for a summer project. I didn’t know anything about how cancer worked, but I did know how the cytoskeleton of the cell works. And based on the cellular images he showed me, I thought that maybe these actin proteins around the cells and their failure to contract may have to do with the cancer. What I came up with was completely wrong, not remotely close to what he was looking for, but he appreciated the fact that I took the time and effort to think about it and come up with my own idea. After that he gave me a book about ethics in science. The book talked about being truthful with your data and the compulsion to change some numbers just to make the result desirable. So he made me read this book and showed me what happens when you lie and that goes out into publication and people are under the expectation that you’re telling the truth. This can influence people and the direction they take in research and you can screw somebody else up; this happens all the time.

Dr. Robert Cumming studies redox proteomics and cell biology at Western University. Read more about his research here.

Interviewers: Armin Farhang-Pour & Sejin Kim