If you’ve ever captured some brilliant ideas on an office whiteboard and written in a corner, “Please do not erase,” you know the odds of your smart words staying put are slim. Someone will likely have wiped everything clean within a week, at the outside.
This is the story of a whiteboard in a conference room at Boston Children’s Hospital that is nearing its 15th birthday. No one can erase what’s on it because a sheet of plexiglass has been bolted over the board’s surface. It may be the only whiteboard in Boston that has been preserved for posterity.
In the upper right corner, in basic black dry erase marker, it said, “Please do not erase J.F.”
J.F. was Judah Folkman, the hospital’s former chief of surgery, and a pioneer in the field of cancer research. Folkman, who was 74 when he died in 2008, studied factors that cause tumors to grow, and developed insights into what’s called angiogenesis — the way tumors attract new blood vessels that enable them to get bigger. His work led to a raft of cancer drugs that seek to block the growth of a tumor’s blood supply. He also trained or collaborated with dozens of scientists who now run their own labs around the world.
The whiteboard ― located in a conference room on the 12th floor of a Children’s research building ― captures what Folkman considered central questions related to the field of angiogenesis research. (An example: Does the BRCA-1 gene regulate angiogenesis in human breast cancer?) When a question was answered by published research, Folkman would add new scientific mysteries to the board. The date atop it says 2007.
“He was truly a visionary,” said Bob Langer, an MIT professor and serial entrepreneur who, early in his career, was a research associate in Folkman’s lab, helping to develop ways to get new types of drugs to reach tumor sites.
Lars Akslen remembers walking through the Longwood Medical Area with Folkman one evening: People on the street and inside Children’s Hospital “noticed his presence, and I felt that they were slowing down to just watch him,” said Akslen, now a professor at the University of Bergen in Norway. “He was a living legend.”
Marsha Moses, director of the Vascular Biology Program at Children’s Hospital, and a collaborator of Folkman’s, said the whiteboard could be viewed as “his notebook.” Why do some tumors shift from benign to fast-growing and deadly? Are there diagnostic tests we could develop to understand when that will happen? Are there ways to prevent them from making that switch, or reverse the switch once it is triggered?
“In the whole field of vascular biology, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody working on a project that doesn’t touch any of these areas,” said Moses. “The field is derived from all of this stuff.”
Folkman was constantly hunting for research areas that were outside of the box, said Akslen, who spent a sabbatical working with Folkman in 2004 and 2005. During the lab meetings that Folkman chaired in the conference room, it “was always crowded, with people sitting and standing all over the place,” Akslen recalled. “Dr. Folkman shared the latest news, and he openly speculated on what to do next, and he shared so many brilliant ideas. The whiteboard was used in this context.”
There are a few names scrawled on the board, tying particular questions and topics to people Folkman was collaborating with — or had proposed collaborating with. Akslen is one of them, as is Jerry Shay, a professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Shay and Folkman had discussed doing research to understand the relationship between telomere length ― a region of repetitive DNA at the end of a chromosome ― and the initiation of tumor growth. Shay said he wasn’t aware that Folkman’s whiteboard had been preserved, or that he was listed on it.
“You can say everything in science is interesting, but everything you do isn’t necessarily important,” he said. Folkman “seemed to always cut to the important questions.” (And Folkman’s interests weren’t limited to the field of cancer; Langer remembers lively conversations about ways to chemically reduce the heat that gives hurricanes their destructive power.)
The collaboration between Shay and Folkman was derailed by Folkman’s sudden death in 2008. He suffered a heart attack in the Denver airport while traveling to give a talk in Vancouver.
“We were blown away, emotionally and psychologically,” said Moses. They needed to write obituaries for the scientific journals, organize Folkman’s papers, and ensure that the careers of the 30 or so people working under Folkman in his lab weren’t disrupted.
Moses also had a thought about the whiteboard on the 12th floor, with its list of “Central Questions.”
“Honest to God,” she said, “we called the engineering guys and said, ‘We need to preserve this.’ They came right up.” A sheet of plexiglass was cut and bolted over it.
Moses said that while “we don’t advertise it,” scientists aware of Folkman’s work have come from all over the world to take photos of the wall-length whiteboard.
The left half is used to make notes during the ongoing meetings that Moses and other researchers at Children’s have in the conference room. On the day I was there, it had a cloudy orange haze on it — like it had been erased recently, but not well.
But the right half is there for the benefit of future generations of scientists, a testament to asking the big questions, no matter how far-out they may seem today, and working doggedly to discover the answers.