Awardee Profile - John York

John York, Ph.D.

From the Beginning

John York, Ph.D., who holds a dual appointment as associate professor of pharmacology and cancer biology and biochemistry at Duke University, recalls vividly his interview more than a decade ago for a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in Biomedical Sciences (CABS). As a member of the first CABS cohort in 1995, Dr. York has seen the program from every perspective: as an awardee and, later, as a member of its advisory committee. But through everything, that interview stands out.

As he recalls, he was told that he would have just 20 minutes with the committee and that two of its members, Paul Berg and Mike Bishop, were Nobel laureates.Today, Dr.York still isn’t sure whether his heart sunk or whether his adrenaline took over.  “It was probably one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” he said.“We got into a scientific discussion that lasted 45 minutes. I thought the interview went well, but because it went long I worried that I may not have communicated effectively and that I wasn’t going to get an award. But I also knew that I had just finished a conversation with two Nobel laureates—and that the experience would be with me for the rest of my life.Thinking back on it, that was really a defining moment.”

BWF, which had recently received a $400 million endowment from the Wellcome Trust, had just moved from its space at the Burroughs Wellcome Co. into a new—rented and modest—headquarters in Research Triangle Park. The office lacked a meeting room, so BWF conducted the CABS interviews at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

“I’ll say one thing about that room,”Dr.York remembers, with a laugh.“It was shaped like a triangle, and they stuck you at its very point—like an arrow going right through your midsection.”

At the time, Dr.York was a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University. He already was running an independent laboratory, with support from the pharmaceutical company Merck. His lab studied lithium-inhibited enzymes—proteins that are rendered ineffective and, perhaps, toxic with therapeutic doses of lithium. His mentor, Philip Majerus, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, and Stuart Kornfeld, codirector of the university’s hematology division, suggested that he apply for the new career development award that BWF had announced.

Dr.York’s academic path up to then had been different from most postdoctoral fellows. Rather than going straight from undergraduate work into graduate school, he entered the private sector as a technician at Merck—and he began a family.

“I tend to think of my training at Merck as my Ph.D.,” he said. “I entered graduate school at Washington University when I was 27 years old, while most of my peers were 22 or 23 years old. I think I had a little edge because I already had a good deal of experience.”

In addition to studying lithium-inhibited enzymes, he also had been conducting studies on intracellular signaling pathways, the networks and mechanisms that cells use to communicate with each other. Newly funded as a CABS award recipient, he began working in yeast biology, looking for a system that could be exploited both biochemically and genetically.

“Yeast was becoming a popular medium because it was the first published genome,” he said.“We could do a lot with cell signaling.”His initial work in yeast led to papers in Science in 1999 and 2000.

“There’s no way I could have done what I did without BWF money,” he said. “All the exploratory work led to winning my first grant from the National
Institutes of Health as an independent investigator, to having a running start when I started my faculty position at Duke, and then to being named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.”

Dr.York, who occasionally had advised BWF program staff on various ad hoc grants, joined the CABS advisory committee in 2005.“I felt strongly that if someone was willing to take a chance on me, then I was going to help that organization in spreading the word about this award,” he said.

As a committee member, Dr.York now sits on the other side of the interview table.“When I started on the committee, I noticed that when applicants came into the room, their bodies were contorted as a result of the pressure and intensity,” he said. “I could relate to the applicants and what they were going through. It is one of those indescribable emotions—the excitement about the work and the pressure to try to walk out of there with money in your pocket.”

Dr.York offered some insight on the advisory committee’s thought processes while reviewing applications.

“When I read through proposals, I try to find questions to ask that will engage the most scientific discussion,” he said. “Who is the driving force behind this person’s career path? You can really test their knowledge on how deeply they have thought about their problem.We’re looking for people who are thinking outside the box. Progress depends on asking the unreasonable.”

When the National Institutes of Health announced in 2006 its major initiative to support early career development for basic biomedical science, BWF shifted its investment to increasing the pool of physician-scientists by providing early career development funds.While BWF’s CABS program is no longer making new awards, Dr.York has remained on board to review progress reports from the roughly 140 awardees still receiving funding.

As Dr.York sees it, “It seems clear that NIH looked at BWF’s career awards program as the proving ground and proof of principle that this approach is important—and that it can work.”

By Russ Campbell, BWF Communications Officer