Nobel Prize Recipient Talks About Academic Life at UC Berkeley

An Interview with Professor Randy Schekman on the Undergraduate Experience

Dr. Randy Schekman

Dr. Randy Schekman is a Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley, and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. At Berkeley, he developed a genetic and biochemical approach to the study of eukaryotic membrane trafficking. Dr. Schekman, James Rothman and Thomas Sudhof shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on elucidating the components and mechanisms of the secretory pathway. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Dr. Schekman has received numerous honors and awards including the Albert Lasker Award and the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Currently he is Editor-in-Chief of the open access journal eLife.

Learn more about A Day in the Life of Dr. Schekman and view his TedXTalk. You also may view a video of Dr. Schekman’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions asked Dr. Schekman questions frequently asked by prospective and new undergraduate students about UC Berkeley faculty.

Undergraduate students often are intimidated by UC Berkeley’s pre-eminent faculty. How do you suggest they approach their professors in order to maximize their academic experience here?

I understand that apprehension as I felt that way myself when I first went to office hours as an undergraduate at UCLA. Just remember that the faculty were young and inexperienced once themselves and most will remember that feeling and will try to help by welcoming a new student for a chat during office hours or in a scheduled meeting.

You may find it easier to introduce yourself in the classroom or with other students during an office hour. If you find the faculty member approachable, try to reach out for a scheduled one-on-one meeting in his/her office. I can assure you that most of my colleagues welcome such interactions with students and will go out of their way to make time for such a chat.

The Freshman and Sophomore Seminars, in which you’ve participated, are excellent academic opportunities for undergraduates. Can you talk about your involvement and how these seminars work?

I first decided to teach a Freshman seminar nearly twenty years ago when I was given a book called The Discovery of Insulin by Michael Bliss. I was so taken with the excitement of the story that I thought this could form the basis of an entry-level class in which the protein insulin would serve as a focal point to introduce important discoveries in the biological and biomedical sciences.

Along the way, I found a made-for-TV movie called Glory Enough for All, which depicts the major players in this discovery. The film presents the drama of how insulin was discovered and the remarkable and sometimes conflicting personalities of the physician-scientists who collaborated and competed with one another in the race to obtain enough insulin to treat diabetic patients.

In the early twentieth century, diabetes was a certain death sentence and yet within months of the detection of this new hormone, insulin obtained in a crude form from partially purified protein fractions of dog pancreas was being used to resurrect diabetics to near normal health! What could be more exciting to an entry-level student interested in biomedical science? And the saga continued in many forms with insulin being the first protein to have its amino acid sequence deduced, for which another Nobel Prize was issued. And in the 1970s and 1980s, a worldwide race was joined by several teams who competed to clone the human insulin gene from which we now benefit in the production of recombinant human insulin, the first blockbuster product of the biotechnology industry.

As this course evolved, I have introduced class discussions and debates on topics of relevance to the subject, such as patenting human genes, pro or con; the ethics of using human embryos to derive stem cells for therapy, such as creating new islet cells to produce insulin in a diabetic patient; or the ethics of using animals in testing new drugs. And most recently, we had a field trip to Genentech to tour their local production facility, the original site of human insulin production in genetically engineered bacteria.

Mine is just one example of about 180 freshman and sophomore seminars offered each year by many of the Berkeley faculty, each on a unique topic designed by the faculty member and organized so as to engage students in a give-and-take that would be more difficult in a typical entry-level freshman course.

In what other ways do you work with undergraduates?

My research program focuses on the assembly of biological membranes, and my research team consist of undergraduate, PhD, and postdoctoral students.

At any given time my lab sponsors four to six undergraduate students who work along with a more experienced PhD or postdoctoral student to guide the design and execution of experiments that relate to a theme of interest in the lab.

Most of my undergraduate students go on to medical school or graduate school, and some have succeeded in an academic clinical or basic research career.

Tell us about a time you worked with undergraduate students that was a particular success.

My very first, and probably most successful, undergraduate student published a research paper from her work in my lab and went on to a stellar career in basic research, recognized by her election to the US National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors a US scientist can achieve. Others have succeeded in matriculating in highly competitive MD-PhD programs throughout the country. Another very recent graduate just had his work accepted for publication; he is now a beginning MD-PhD student at a top program in New York.

What kind of academic experience can undergraduates expect in your Freshman Seminar class?

My intention is to engage students in discussion on topics of importance in biomedical science and to generate excitement for the more advanced courses they will encounter in lower and then upper division. Some of my students seek opportunities to work in my or other labs on campus. Some of them also have personal experience with a diabetic family member and thus are particularly eager to learn about the discoveries that made treatments possible and the new frontiers that will eventually lead to a cure by replacing the dead pancreatic beta cells that produce insulin.

What is your best advice for undergraduates who want to attend UC Berkeley?

UC Berkeley, indeed many of the other UC campuses attract a select group of talented and energetic students who aspire to make a difference for themselves, for their families and for their fellow citizens. The UC system is the jewel in the crown of public higher education in the US, having blossomed from a wise investment of public funds in the creation of an educated pool of talent that led California to the top of the country in commerce, industry, health, law, education, and the arts. Students who have the opportunity to attend UC Berkeley are privileged to benefit from this gift from the people of California. The most successful Berkeley students take full advantage of this gift by engaging with their classmates in and out of a formal course setting.

My advice to a new student is to focus on one or only a small number of activities or subjects that excite you and dig as deeply as possible to bring your mastery of a subject or skill to the highest level you can attain.

In the best of circumstances, this would involve reaching out to a faculty member to engage him or her as a mentor to guide your pursuit of the subject.

Ideally you would find a way to become embedded in the research, teaching, or service activities of that faculty member. And, even if you ultimately pursue a different career objective, you will have experienced the best that Berkeley has to offer.

What makes a UC Berkeley student unique?

Other institutions, particularly the select private universities, attract a diverse and extraordinarily talented group of students. However, these institutions typically fill a larger share of each class with students who come from economically privileged backgrounds. Indeed, my colleagues at these universities often comment on the sense of entitlement that some of these students bring. I have never seen that behavior here at Berkeley.

The UC system, indeed virtually all of public higher education in this country, serves the common good for students of families who may not have gone to college or who know little about the frontiers of scholarship. And yet, these institutions drive economic and social advancement in a way that has repaid the public investment many-fold.

For this reason, and because of the exceptional quality of of our students, I consider UC Berkeley the most important institution of higher education in this country.

Based on your experience with eLife, what do you see as the next phase in peer review?

The advancement of science depends crucially on the peer review system where impartial scholars critique and suggest corrections or additional work to the authors of a paper submitted for publication. This approach has evolved slowly over centuries to ensure that the fruits of our scientific enterprise are judged to be of an acceptable level of rigor and scholarship. Increasingly, the pressure scholars feel to publish in the most selective venues has created distortions that may lead some to misrepresent or manipulate results in an effort to support sensational claims.

Part of the problem originates with journals that have an economic incentive and seek publicity for themselves through the publication of extraordinary claims. And many of these commercial concerns, Elsevier being a prime example, guard this intellectual property through the use of copyright protection that keeps the work from being openly accessible, or accessible only at great expense.

Two trends in recent years show promise of breaking the hegemony of the commercial influence on scholarship. The Open Access movement has produced an alternative publication model where the scholar supports publication expenses with his or her own research funds as opposed to the subscription model that generates revenue for the publisher.

Another model which we have introduced with the journal eLife is for the funding agency, in our case the Wellcome Trust, the Max Planck Society and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, to provide the financial support needed to launch a major new journal intended to compete with the most selective, largely commercial journals.

Our effort has taken shape with an open review process where the peer reviewers confer with one another to judge the work and each others’ critiques in order to arrive at a consensus view. The results of this consultative approach are published along with each accepted paper. As this process evolves, I see more of this sort of control being returned to scholars and away from the editors, some of whom are long removed from any role in active scholarship.