Turning point: Ethan Perlstein

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Evolutionary pharmacologist reaches out online.

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Ethan Perlstein has spent five years creating a sub-field of research that he calls evolutionary pharmacology. As his fellowship at Princeton University's Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics in New Jersey comes to an end and he searches for his next academic post, Perlstein is maintaining an innovatively designed website adorned with modules and discussion threads to help to communicate his thoughts on science.

When did you first start fostering communication among scientists?

I was an intern at a small biotech company before my final year of high school. As part of that, I would read immunology articles, formulate questions and start a correspondence with the author. One of these authors was Ronald Germain, an immunologist at the US National Institutes of Health. He must have been struck by the idea of a kid reading papers; he offered me another internship, in his lab in Bethesda, Maryland, where I worked for the summer before going to Columbia University in New York to study sociology.

How did you come to champion evolutionary pharmacology?

After several rotations in different labs as a cell-biology graduate student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I realized that I wanted to work with small molecules relevant to human diseases. I also wanted to use a simple model system, such as yeast, so that I could do a lot of experiments quickly. I noticed that several small molecules that affect yeast growth are also psychiatric drugs, and I started studying the connection. There is a large evolutionary distance between yeast and humans, but these drugs affect ancient processes that we share.

How is your job search going?

Like many of my colleagues, I have been battered by the job market. I received zero interviews out of 18 applications this year, despite having a five-year independent position with a US$1-million budget on my CV. The fellowship has been great, but it is not a normal postdoc, so I am not sure that the wider community of scientists knows what to make of it. I am a research cross-pollinator, and don't have one well-known area of expertise. I wonder if it may be harder for me to break out.

Has your decision to invest time, money and energy in your website paid off?

I think so. Most academics use a lab website to list publications; essentially it becomes static, a version of their CV. I wanted to do something new and cool that would help to communicate science. I am not a programmer, so I spent several thousand dollars of my own money on hiring a professional design team to create something interactive. It includes my tweets, blog posts and research summaries — replete with pop-culture references — in a series of modules that encourage viewers to add their own comments. It seems to work: one private-sector researcher who checked out my website contacted me about mutually beneficial research opportunities.

One post on your website breaks down your academic lab budget. Why share this?

My fellowship finishes at the end of the year, and I am interested in crowd-funding a project on how amphetamines such as crystal meth work. I am asking for roughly $25,000, and I thought that I should give potential funders evidence that I am responsible with money. I see this as part of the same movement as a group of scientists who are posting their grant proposals — whether they are successful or not. I am excited about experimenting with the way we do science.

What has been your career turning point?

Without a doubt, joining Twitter in 2011, when I started offering my thoughts about changing the way science is done. I found a community of people passionate about rethinking scholarly publishing and funding. I had hoped for a way to scale up the e-mail cold-calling that I had done at high school. Twitter was a way to connect with like-minded people and keep a conversation going 24/7.

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Interview by Virginia Gewin

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Gewin, V. Turning point: Ethan Perlstein. Nature 490, 133 (2012) doi:10.1038/nj7418-133a

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