Marc Tessier-Lavigne, senior vice-president, Genentech, South San Francisco
For Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a bout of seasickness stirred up a career epiphany 24 years ago that still reverberates today. In 1980, the maths and physics major at McGill University in Montreal won a Rhodes scholarship (see CV). He planned to follow that same research direction in Oxford, UK, and he registered for a PhD in physics and selected an adviser. But while crossing the Atlantic aboard the QEII, the decision — and the waves — left him feeling queasy. He realized that his interests were more varied — one of his favourite undergraduate experiences had been scraping the surface of biology while writing a thesis on biophysics — and that he still had plenty of time to learn.
“Do I really want to be on a set career path when I'm 23?” he asked himself between the Dramamines. He answered by ditching the doctorate and pursuing a bachelor's degree in a hybrid subject that no one had picked as a major for five years. “Philosophy and physiology — the connection is tenuous, but it was exactly what I wanted,” he says.
That flexibility and risk-taking has since characterized his career. He declined a rare tenure-track position at University College London after he finished his doctorate there, to pursue a postdoc instead; published only review articles for three years; went after one of the more intractable problems of neurodevelopmental biology at the time; and, last year, left a lofty academic job to jump across to industry and join biotech firm Genentech in South San Francisco (see Nature Medicine 10, 10; 2004).
In following such a varied path, Tessier-Lavigne unwittingly adhered to the template that is now considered the perfect background for a multidisciplinary scientist (see Nature 425, 542–543; 2003). He has since advised his graduate students to do a postdoc in something completely different from their thesis topic. For instance, if a student's thesis was on the cell cycle of yeast, he'd recommend against them using a fellowship to continue studying that issue — even in another organism.
Following that logic, Tessier-Lavigne is prepared to pursue research subjects he's never investigated in a setting he has never worked in.