An Interview with Nobel Laureate Dr. Bruce Beutler

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences gives the Nobel Prize to individuals who, according to Alfred Nobel’s will, “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Dr. Bruce Beutler, UC San Diego alumnus, was awarded Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2011 for his work in innate immunology.

The prize committee stated that the work of Dr. Beutler and his fellow award recipients in discovering the key principles of immune system activation “has opened up new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer, and inflammatory diseases.”

Dr. Beutler graduated from UC San Diego after two years and a quarter at the age of 18 in 1976. He then attended medical school at the University of Chicago. Dr. Beutler worked at UT Southwestern, Rockefeller University, and back to UT Southwestern where he did his Nobel prize winning work. Dr. Beutler then worked at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla for over a decade and moved back to UT Southwestern in 2011.

He is currently a regental professor and director of the Center for Genetics of Host Defense at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and he holds the Raymond and Ellen Willie Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research.

In November of 2012, UC San Diego was honored to welcome Dr. Beutler back to campus for a talk entitled “Reflections from a Nobel Laureate: An Evening with Bruce Beutler ’76.” At a session during this visit where students from the Division of Biological Sciences had the chance to meet Dr. Beutler in person, Dr. Beutler saw copies of Saltman Quarterly and Under the Scope journals and was impressed by how they were put together.

Editor-in-Chief Milli Desai had the opportunity to interview Dr. Beutler after his visit to discuss his undergraduate career at UC San Diego and the importance of scientific communication.

Q & A | Saltman Quarterly Vol. 10 (2012-13)

Q: How did you complete your undergraduate career at UCSD in two years? Was this difficult or did you always plan on achieving your degree in a short time?

A: I planned on moving quite quickly from the start. I planned on being a biologist and I planned on going the route of medicine to do that. It was somewhat difficult as I had to take a lot of classes but I had a lot of Advanced Placement credit from high school. With a certain amount of stress I was able to do it.

Q: Did you have any favorite courses at UCSD?

A: I remember taking biochemistry with Dr. Paul Price. He was a wonderful teacher. That class influenced me quite a bit. It’s been about 37 years or so and I have many memories of classes. The whole experience was very pleasant for me.

Dr. Beutler addresses the audience at the "Reflections from a Nobel Laureate" event on campus last year. | Photo courtesy of UCSD News Center
Dr. Beutler addresses the audience at the “Reflections from a Nobel Laureate” event on campus last year. | Photo courtesy of UCSD News Center

Q: Did you have a class with Dr. Paul Saltman at UCSD?

A: No I didn’t, but I did meet him. He was a friend of my father’s. I first saw him before I went to UCSD, when my older brother Earl was graduating. There were a lot of faculty and parents milling around together, and I happened to meet him then. I did not take a class with him, which I regret.

Q: Did the biology program at UCSD impact the rest of your career in terms of research?

A: In some ways, yes. In those days there was very little in the way of molecular biology, the usual way of approaching biological questions was to isolate the proteins that mediated certain functions. I did a lot of that early on in my career. That was the way I approached tumor necrosis factor to have a feeling for what proteins could do– their flexibility, their ability to change conformation, how they responded to different conditions in whatever solvent one placed them in. This was all very important for me and it did influence me to take certain classes to begin to understand those things.

Q: Did you live on campus when you attended UCSD? Were your roommates aware of your interest in biology? Did your roommates always know they were living with a future Nobel Laureate?

A: I did live on campus for my first year in Argo Hall, facing Revelle Plaza. My roommate was David Kaplan, and whether he knew I would go on in biology I don’t really know. I certainly didn’t make a secret of it, but then one never knows how things will turn out at a relatively young age.

Q: Did you always set the curve in your classes?

A: Oh, no. I would say I was a good student, but not a great one. I could have done better in most of my classes if I had gone at a more measured pace. I don’t believe I was at the top of most of my classes, maybe just a few of them.

Q: Do you have any advice for undergraduates starting to conduct research?

A: I always made a point of being attached to a laboratory. I did that in order to learn new techniques to try to understand the thinking that went on in certain disciplines. I was attached to the Lindsley lab for much of the time I was at UCSD, and that was where I learned quite a bit about genetics.

I think that’s a good idea even now; there are many professors who would be very happy to have a bright hardworking undergraduate working in their lab.

It doesn’t matter so much what you concentrate on and in what order at this stage of undergraduate careers. It is unknowable how things will turn out; it is better not to agonize but to just do something.

Q: Where there any challenges that you had to overcome when you were conducting research?

A: Not many challenges. Things don’t always work, but I tend to be patient with experimental research. I don’t usually set out to prove something, but to understand how a system operates, and that takes a lot of time. One has to be aware of that.

Dr. Beutler greets students after the event. |Photo courtesy of UCSD News Center
Dr. Beutler greets students after the event. | Photo courtesy of UCSD News Center

Q: A lot of UCSD students aspire to have careers in healthcare professions. Why is biological research important in those fields.

A: Things go both ways. Biology has been tremendously important to medicine, it has made medicine and healthcare what it is. Without it we’d have nothing. There is a time within living memory– not within my memory, but within the memory of some– when medicine really had little to offer and doctors were mostly passive witnesses to the progress of disease. It’s no longer that way.

Over the span of my own life, the lifespan of the average American has increased by about 30%. All of this is because of science. All of it. And I think people should be aware of that. The converse is also true–medicine helps science. It certainly helped me to understand biology better.

Someone who goes into medicine, who becomes closely familiar with disease and what can go wrong with organisms like humans will understand what has to go right for humans to be healthy and survive. This is the reason that medicine has been so effective in elucidating biological concepts. It’s the same principal that I apply in genetics. When I mutagenize mice, for example, I do so in order to disrupt certain biological systems and then to figure out what went wrong.

Q: The Saltman Quarterly program encourages students to publish their own research to disseminate scientific knowledge to UCSD and the greater community. What is the importance of scientific communication in terms of writing about your work and conveying it to others?

A: It’s extremely important to be able to communicate effectively, to make people understand what you’re doing, to persuade them that you have the correct idea about how things work in whatever problem you are studying. In some ways I think that is the single greatest predictor of success–how well one can write, and how well one can communicate orally. It is undoubtedly very important for people to get practice in that early on and to keep exercising it.

Q: Do you have any tips about how to start writing about biology in a way that is interesting?

A: That is a very good question. I think everyone has to find his or her own way. In my own perspective, you do have to capture the attention of the reader early on in an article or grant proposal or research proposal. It often helps to very concisely lay out the big picture or question you are approaching in hopes that you achieve that, that you get their attention, that you interest them. If you don’t do those things, then certainly they are not going to look at your paper the same way as they would if they understood the question right from the front.

Q: That concludes our shirt interview, thank you again for speaking to us!

A: Thank you very much, it was nice speaking to you.

INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY MILLI DESAI. Milli Desai is the Editor-in-Chief of Saltman Quarterly. She is a Human Biology major from Revelle College and will graduate in 2014.