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SCIENCE IN MIND

Harvard paleontologist recalled for spirit, infectious wit

A colleague from Montana who had been planning a trip to Tanzania with the late paleontologist Farish Jenkins, said he would see Jenkins in every animal he encounters.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/File 2006

A colleague from Montana who had been planning a trip to Tanzania with the late paleontologist Farish Jenkins, said he would see Jenkins in every animal he encounters.

After reading several marvelous stories about the life of the late Harvard paleontologist Farish Jenkins, I was filled with regret that I never had the chance to experience his wit and intelligence firsthand.

Earlier this month, I attended a packed memorial service at Harvard University’s Memorial Church — a farewell celebration that was full of emotion, humor, and whimsy as colleagues, students, and family members remembered Jenkins’s life as a teacher, discoverer, and father.

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Neil Shubin, associate dean at the University of Chicago, recalled a failed expedition he made with Jenkins to Greenland in the late 1980s, for which they had been ill-prepared. They had brought the wrong boots, the wrong food, the wrong equipment. The experience, he said, spurred them to say, “Never do anything for the first time.”

Late in the trip, Shubin recalled, an Arctic storm descended. As he and Jenkins clung to poles in their tent, trying to get the thing to stay up as they were assailed by winds and weather, Shubin admitted feeling miserable.

But when he looked over at Jenkins, he recounted, the man had a glint in his eye, and said, “Aren’t we lucky! We get paid to do this.”

Ken Dial, a professor of biology at the University of Montana, brought out the peg leg that Jenkins used to wear when giving a lecture on gait. He said that initially, he thought he might reenact Jenkins’s famous lecture, but realized that would be like singing at Luciano Pavarotti’s funeral.

Then he brought people to tears as he described a pending trip to Tanzania — one that he had planned to take with Jenkins. On the phone, Jenkins had assured him that he would be there; and Dial said Jenkins, who died in November of complications from pneumonia, would be there: that he would see Jenkins in every animal he saw, from the graceful movements of the giraffe to the warthog digging for treasures in the dirt.

Research finds variation in single gene linked to setting of our biological clocks

A large team led by researchers at Boston hospitals recently reported a surprising result: a common variation in a gene was associated with being an early bird, and with the time of day people died.

Given how many things affect when we wake up — not to mention all the experiences accumulated over a lifetime that contribute to how and when we die — it seems a little crazy that a single gene could be meaningfully linked to those complicated traits.

But over the years, it has become increasingly clear that our bodies run on their own clocks and that health is inextricably linked to those rhythms. Shift workers forced to adopt a schedule wildly out of rhythm with a typical day raise their risk of obesity and diabetes. Heart attacks have a propensity to strike in the morning and asthma attacks at night. A growing body of evidence suggests giving cancer drugs at specific times of day can make a therapy’s side effects less harsh.

The scientists who published the new findings in the Annals of Neurology said the research needs to be repeated in a larger group of people to see whether it holds up. They acknowledged that a complex trait such as being a night owl or dying at dusk rather than midday would probably have many contributions, not just one gene. But, given the importance of our body’s natural rhythms, they and others argue, it is important to try and unravel the biology of the clock.

“What you’d like to do is you’d like to see if there’s some predictive value here,” said Dr. Clifford Saper, chief of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and a coauthor. “Could you predict who would be able to adjust to a job that requires that you start at 6 a.m.? . . . Would you be able to pick your job based on knowing your” genetic predisposition.

Researchers not involved in the study said it was a fascinating result, but just a first step in teasing out how the human body clock works and what effect upsetting the clock can have.

Bold research may be missing out on funds

If you want to hear a scientist groan, ask about the grant applications he or she is writing. You are likely to hear a rant about the tight federal science budget or the belief that government grants more often fund incremental research than bold ideas. Dr. John Ioannidis of Stanford University decided to apply scientific analysis to examine how science is funded, and discover what trends lie beneath anecdotal experience.

In an analysis published Wednesday in the journal Nature, Ioannidis and Joshua M. Nicholson of Virginia Tech found that the majority of researchers who led the most influential studies — papers from the past decade that received more than 1,000 citations by other scientists — did not have current funding from the National Institutes of Health, the predominant funder of biomedical research in the United States.

That could be for a variety of reasons, but the finding that so many leading-edge scientists are not funded by the NIH raises the question, Ioannidis argues, whether the NIH encourages conformity, or even mediocrity.

For another perspective, I spoke with a scientist who is soon going to have to start thinking deeply about how life sciences research is funded: Erin K. O’Shea, a Harvard professor of molecular and cellular biology, who in January will begin a new job as chief scientific officer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which provides open-ended funding to researchers, a philosophy often summed up as “people, not projects.”

Do you think there is too much conformity in how grants are awarded?

I do. . . . Consider the positive first: It works well for people who have established a track record, even as a graduate student or post-doc, and who are continuing on an expansion of the problem or something very closely related to that upon which they previously worked.

It works badly if someone tries to do something that they haven’t done before. . . . When you try to step out of the field in which you work, it is very, very difficult to get money, and I speak with firsthand experience. For 20 years I had NIH grants. I do not now and it’s in part because I changed fields.

Has the problem gotten better or worse?

My sense is this kind of conformity problem has gotten worse over the years as money gets more and more restricted and science gets bigger and bigger.

I’ve heard scientists say that the grants that do get funded are incremental. What do you think?

I absolutely think that’s right, and it’s a consequence of the way grants are judged. A large part of the judgment is whether the panel members believe the work is likely to succeed . . . where one can lay out a neatly described set of experiments and possible outcomes and a sort of flow chart of what one would do. Given this result, one would do this next. Many things in science don’t lend themselves to that type of flow chart, and in fact, some of the most interesting things do not, and the flow chart looks like a hair ball. . . .

To be fair, [the NIH] has created new models for funding, based in part on [Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s model], of funding the investigator. The NIH has several programs in that vein where they’re funding the person, in large part.

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