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Lucky Larry: Reflections on a career in immunology and neurology

I became a science writer, in part, because I love the stories behind the science. Stories filled with real people with real lives.

So I was thrilled to discover in Molecular Medicine a detailed story (.pdf) of his scientific journey written by Lawrence Steinman, MD, the George A. Zimmerman Professor and a professor of pediatrics. But first, let's dispense with long, formal titles. In this piece, Steinman, whose work has led to therapies for the neurological disorder multiple sclerosis, is simply "Lucky Larry."

Lucky he is, certainly, but there was no small amount hard work involved in his honor-laden career, which is chronicled in this riveting tale written in recognition of one of his most recent awards, the Anthony Cerami Award in Translational Medicine, which includes the opportunity to publish a monograph.

It's a long read, but one well worth your time — a nice mix of science and cameos of esteemed researchers, including Jonas Salk, MD, himself.

Salk's polio vaccine figures prominently in the story, as it was Steinman's sister's infection with polio that spurred Steinman (oops, Lucky Larry) to pursue biomedical research. Readers follow Lucky Larry from "the sunny, sheltered environment of middle-class America in Culver City, California" of his youth (where he met his wife, Lucy, the woman with dark hair shown in the photo above, with LL, when they were both 16). Readers travel along to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Russia, Israel and many places in between. Then, in 1973, LL came to Stanford: "For me, it was 'California, here I come, right back where I started from,'" he writes:

At Stanford, I aspired to try to be a 'triple threat,' describing an academic physician, who engaged in a clinical practice caring for patients, who taught medical students and graduate students, and who did laboratory research. As it turned out, the beginning of the era of biotechnology was upon us, and there was to be a 'fourth threat': the merging of medical research with biotechnology companies.

LL describes those efforts, including his work with six biotech companies to date and a total of five clinical trials, all which have come ever closer to alleviating symptoms of MS and another autoimmune disorder, type 1 diabetes. He also offers sage advice to junior scientists and doctors, such as:

It may be time to remind ourselves that it is a good idea to send compliments. We spend a great deal of time as working scientists acting as 'tough peer reviewers.' I recommend sending a colleague a compliment on an exciting paper or a fine lecture, even if you may be jealous of their achievement.

Finally, he writes on the importance of communication:

I think that the American public is in general rather ignorant about science, including the subjects of the brain and the immune system. Part of the problem has been our reluctance to write about what we do for the lay public... We should work to improve our communication skills.

And in this monograph, LL proves it can be done: Scientists can write about their work for the public, with just a bit of effort, and a fair amount of luck.

Previously: Brain, heal thyself? Stanford research describes delayed onset of multiple sclerosis in mice"I consider myself just a scientist": The career of Stanford sleep expert Emmanuel Mignot and Stanford scientist Lucy Shapiro: "It never occurred to me to question the things I wanted to do"
Photo courtesy of Lawrence Steinman

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