Name and credentials: Simon Melov, PhD
Preferred contact information:
The Buck Institute
8001 Redwood Blvd
Novato, CA 94945
1) What led you to join as a founding faculty of Buck Institute?
I wanted to work on aging since I was a boy and at the time it [Buck Institute] was created there were no places focused on the biology of aging. While I was at Emory University I was planning for a Gordon Conference and looking for speakers. I contacted Dale Bredesen [founding chief executive of Buck Institute] at the Burnham Institute to see if he was interested in speaking at the conference I was organizing, but he had just accepted a job at a brand new research institute focused on the biology of aging (the Buck Institute, literally just opening its doors). This led to a series of conversations and an interview, ultimately leading to me joining as one of the founding faculty of the Buck Institute. I had been interested in working somewhere like the Buck for a long time, and hadn’t found an appropriate setting at a university or biotech. If academic institutions like a traditional university had some sort of “aging center”, it was typically a loose collection of faculty with some interest in the biology or diseases of aging, but not a highly focused and coordinated group like we have at the Buck. Fortunately, we’ve been able to build an institute from the ground up that we hope will make a difference to the global aging population, and perhaps help healthspan as well as longevity.
2) Could you describe a typical day of work for you at the Buck?
The answer to this question in many ways is what distinguishes the institute from other academic institutions. Our institute is highly collaborative, and any given day you may have conversations with other investigators, postdocs, or grad students, about projects they are developing or some breakthrough someone has had. You may attend the lab meeting of a collaborator, or perhaps test an idea yourself. There are minimal teaching requirements in the traditional sense (although we all mentor to some degree or another). I would say it is very different from “normal” academia in that I think most of us are keenly aware of related projects in the institute. Many of the investigators have multiple internal collaborations, and this serves to differentiate us from other institutions where it is very typical to keep your head down, and be totally myopically focused on running your own lab. Aging research is super interdisciplinary, hence our very collaborative environment. Many of the papers coming out of the Buck have at least two investigators as co-authors, sometimes four or five. This typifies the culture of our institute, and we hope to synergize our strengths and bring them together to advance aging research in a highly interdisciplinary way.
3) What do you feel are the major differences between working at a research institute compared to a traditional research university?
In some ways it depends on the specific research institute. Many research institute cultures are idiosyncratic to each place. The Buck is interdisciplinary and highly collaborative. Most [of us] have an interest in the biology of aging and apply our individual skills to address aging questions. Most other institutes have perhaps more diffuse mission goals... perhaps cell biology in general, or possibly cancer as a couple of examples. The Buck is very different as aging is diffuse in one sense, but inevitably touches upon most people’s lives at some point. Everyone suffers from aging, so I think its fairly safe to say, everyone becomes interested in the topic at some point. I’ve visited quite a few other research institutions, and what we have at Buck seems very unique.
4) What is your favorite aspect of working in a research institute? I know we’ve touched on the collaboration, but are there any other unique benefits as compared to a traditional university setting?
We can turn on a dime the way other research centers cannot. We are small and free of the large-scale bureaucracies which typically exist in large institutions. We can do things to respond both programmatically and scientifically in a way large institutions have difficulty with. At the Buck, it’s possible to implement new technology and change our infrastructure, to take advantage of discoveries of the moment. We can do so quickly without 5,000 committee meetings. When we see that we need to something, we tend to agree that we need to do it, and then we can frequently change course quickly.
5) Are there any unique obstacles to research when working at a research institute? Is there anything that you miss about a more traditional research university?
One of the clear disadvantages at a small not-for-profit is being able to execute our mission with sometimes limited financial resources. We are keenly aware of the financial obstacles, and try and maximize our research dollars. Aging research is not cheap. Fortunately, so far we have been able to meet these challenges, and maintain some prominence in the area. We are a soft money institution, and I can’t say that this fact doesn’t cross most of the faculties mind fairly frequently. Will I have enough research dollars to fuel this cool new idea? Can we afford to buy the latest piece of equipment which is a perfect fit for a new concept we would like to test? Essentially this means we have to be pretty aggressive about grant applications and other sponsored research and philanthropic funding opportunities. Luckily right now aging is a hot topic, and we hope to capitalize on that.
6) How did you envision your career when you first began your graduate studies and how does it compare with where you are now in your career?
I have stuck to my game plan, it hasn’t really changed at all from when I was a small boy. I am at a research institute on aging and that is what I always wanted. Overall, what I imagined when I was young was breakthrough after breakthrough, and imagined that the discoveries would flow like water…. In reality things are not as straight forward and solvable. Science takes more time than the general public realizes, and most of the remaining biological problems which are plaguing humanity are really hard (particularly aging!). I think, though, that we are entering an era where things may move faster, with some amazing new technologies and computational methods being actively applied to aging research, so we may be entering a new period of profound discoveries.
7) What do you know now that you wish you knew as an early-stage investigator?
Things take longer than you think. The complexity of biology is not necessarily solvable through brute force. Even if you have unlimited budget, things take longer than you think.