The value of having Lee and Trojanowski under one roof—the Maloney Building by day, at home in Center City Philadelphia—may be impossible to gauge by any known metric. But the synergy is undeniable.

“We talk science all the time,” says Lee. “I mean, it’s a lifestyle. It’s what we do and part of our life. Even in a restaurant or on a plane or whatever, if I have an idea, I say, ‘What do you think about this?’”

They met in a Boston bar in 1976, when she was a postdoctoral fellow at Children’s Hospital Boston and he was about to begin his first residency at Harvard.

“John walked by and I opened my mouth and said, ‘Haven’t I met you someplace before?’ not knowing that it is a classical pickup line,” she told Nature Medicine. It turned out that they had indeed been in the same seminar a couple of years before.

Her voice still carries a trace of an accent from her native China (she was born in the southwestern city of Chongqing), though she has moved around so much that the phonology of her English would probably stump most experts. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, earned her master’s in biochemistry from the University of London and her PhD in biochemistry from UC-San Francisco, and spent a post-doc year at the University of Utrecht and five years in experimental pathology at Harvard Medical School. Then came a restless year at Smith Kline & French (now GlaxoSmithKline), from which she came to Penn’s School of Medicine in 1981. By then Trojanowski had given up a promising post at Massachusetts General Hospital to follow her to Philadelphia.

Both Lee and Trojanowski have reputations for being outspoken, even blunt, as well as for having very high standards. “Their scientific fights are legendary and public, but productive,” Nature Medicine noted.

When I mention that assessment to Lee, she doesn’t bat an eye.

“The thing is that, if you’re married, and if you cannot treat each other as colleagues when you actually work professionally, then it just won’t work,” she says. “If I don’t agree with him, I have to say so. And if he doesn’t agree with me, he has to say so, too. But because we are married, I can be even more honest with him with my opinion. Whereas if I don’t want to offend a colleague, then I might not be so upfront, so blunt and honest about everything.”

As she talks about the personal side of their relationship, I notice, even her body language softens.

“We actually have a great time working together,” she adds. “We really have a very special relationship where we do enjoy each other’s company, as well as from the work point of view and also from just being married and living together. I mean, I don’t know how we did it. But I think it’s amazing. People are even more amazed because we share the same office at home. Even though we’re together 24/7, I want to be with him all the time.”

A few minutes later, Trojanowski knocks on the door and enters, all six-foot-three of him. After Lee fills him in on the ground we’ve covered, he suddenly emits a high-kilowatt scowl: Apparently she hadn’t sent him some information he needed before an important meeting.

“You were supposed to send me that email!” he says, glaring with those cavernous eyes in a terribly accusing way. Then he fires a really robust barnyard epithet at her. This is great theater—Mom and Dad are fighting! In front of company!—and I sneak a peek to see how Lee is responding.

Turns out this brilliant, high-powered, no-nonsense scientist is giggling like a high-school senior who just got her boyfriend in trouble by sending him an inappropriate text message in class. Thirty seconds later, as best as I can tell, both of them have completely forgotten about it. If they ever bag science, they could go into business as extreme marriage counselors.

“They clearly have between them a very unique marriage and relationship,” says Kurt Brunden, scientific director of the Ware Alzheimer’s and Benaroya Parkinson’s Disease Drug Discovery programs, with a laugh. “It’s one that wouldn’t work for everyone, but it seems to suit them just fine. They’re pretty much 24/7 when it comes to science. They’re not shy about disagreeing with each other in public, but they never seem to hold a grudge. They’ll have at it, and the next day it’s another day.

“I think in general it takes a certain type of person to work under them here at the center, because you have to have a little bit of a thick skin,” Brunden adds. “Just as they talk to each other, they’ll often talk to others with that same kind of general directness. But they’ve been great to me.”

The very talented people they’ve assembled clearly like working for and with them.

“They have high standards, but they’re also extremely caring and supportive,” says Vivianna Van Deerlin, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and director of the molecular pathology lab at HUP. “So if you demonstrate to them that you’re motivated, you’re hard-working, and you’re contributing, they will support you.” That support might take the form of referring a junior colleague to speak or present at meetings, or designating them as senior author on a journal article. Those trainees who can “maintain a high level of effort and dedication,” she adds, “will be rewarded with a strong foundation in analytical thinking and research skills.”

Like others, Van Deerlin cites a certain professional generosity about Lee and Trojanowski. “They don’t hog things. I mean, they’re careful, fiscally as well as with samples. But they’re very, very collaborative, not only with our own program but also nationally and internationally.”

Beth McCarty Wood, a genetics counselor in the CNDR, cites another kind of support, one that concerns patients and their families.

“Occasionally I’ll get a phone call out of the blue, and it’ll be from John, and he’ll tell me he just spoke to a family, and that he himself went over their autopsy results and the issue of genetics came up, and he felt it would be very important for them to talk to me,” she says. “And he immediately initiated getting me and the family in contact with each other. It wasn’t an email; it wasn’t a passing note in the hall. It was an immediate phone call to let me know, ‘Beth, this is a family that has questions, that needs help. Can you please get in touch with them as quickly as possible?’”
 


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