Celebrating the Dual Importance of Interesting and Useful Science

By Bert Vogelstein, M.D.

I am very pleased and honored to be the winner of the 2015 Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research. This award is particularly meaningful to me for a variety of reasons. One of them relates to something my oldest son, Jacob, taught me. Jacob is a biomedical engineer and when I used to show him some of our papers, he would say “Hey, that’s pretty interesting, but you know, just about everything is interesting to someone; there’s a big difference between interesting and useful.”

That perspective, I think, is appropriate for many types of biomedical research, and one of the reasons that this award is unique – because it recognizes the dual importance of what’s useful as well as what's interesting. By interesting, we, as scientists, mean something that has some inner beauty, some aesthetic quality. By useful we mean something that is useful to society, not just to other scientists.

There are very few people who have done both interesting and useful things. One of them is Dr. Paul Janssen. What most impressed me about Dr. Janssen was his long term view. He focused on what might be useful in 15 or 20 years, which is dramatically different from many industry perspectives, which focus on the near term. I believe that’s why Janssen was able to develop so many new drugs.

Two other physician scientists who achieved that duality are Mike Brown and Joe Goldstein. Their work is particularly important to me not only because it epitomizes useful and interesting, but also because they played a major role in charting the course of cardiovascular research over the last decades - and its focus on prevention. Cardiovascular research is centered on primary and secondary prevention, while cancer research is largely devoted on the opposite end of the spectrum - curing advanced disease. The research course that Brown, Goldstein, and others in their field charted has diminished deaths from cardiovascular disease by 75% over the last 60 years. Cancer deaths have decreased hardly at all during the same time period, so there is a lot that we cancer researchers can learn from them.

Another reason that the Janssen Award is meaningful to me is because it’s given by industry. It's often much harder to do something useful, really useful, than to do something that’s just interesting, and what industry scientists do is useful stuff. This award gives me a chance to acknowledge the importance of the work that they do, and to thank them for transforming the interesting stuff that we do in academia into useful products for society.

Finally, based on lessons drawn from industry, the award celebrates collaboration. Industry scientists work in teams. Imitating their approach, I work in a team. My team is co-led by Ken Kinzler, and has included nearly 200 technicians, pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellows over the last 35 years. These individuals have been responsible not just for doing the vast majority of the experiments in our laboratory but also for devising many of the ideas that led to the experiments as well as the technical advances that made the experiments successful. This award is a tribute to their efforts as much as mine, and makes it all the sweeter.

bert_vogelsteinBert Vogelstein, MD is the Clayton Professor of Oncology and Pathology at John Hopkins University, the co-director of the Ludwig Center for Cancer Genetics & Therapeutics at the John Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Dr. Vogelstein was the winner of the 2015 Dr. Paul Janssen Award.