“As long as I’m learning something, I figure I’m OK — it’s a decent day” Hunter S. Thompson
Born in Banbridge, Northern Ireland, Stephen Goodwin spent his childhood growing up in Belfast and attending Methodist College Belfast grammar school. He studied genetics as an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow, and researched Drosophila learning and memory for his Ph.D. in Kim Kaiser’s lab. During a postdoctoral stint in Jeff Hall’s lab at Brandeis University, he used molecular-genetic and behavioral approaches in the fruit fly to understand how the sexual identity of a nervous system and its behaviors are specified. He worked on a fly gene, nicknamed fruitless, mutations of which specifically disrupt male reproductive behaviors. Research on fruitless — in Hall’s lab and others — was the first to pinpoint a single gene that works in the brain to govern nearly all aspects of a complex behavior in adult animals. He returned to the UK and spent 10 years leading a research group at the University of Glasgow, before moving to Oxford in 2009, where he is an Associate Professor in Biomedical Sciences and a Tutorial Fellow in Medicine and Physiology Sciences at Magdalen College. His laboratory continues to use Drosophila melanogaster to study the genetic, developmental, and neural mechanisms that underlie sex-specific behaviors.
How did you get into biology, and how did you come to be working in this area?
My father was a mechanical engineer by training but an enthusiastic biologist, and in the late 70s he studied for an Open University degree in biology. He was a believer in broadening your mind in a way that isn’t connected to your working life and getting a sense of achieving something new and amazing. He adored the way different disciplines could cross-pollinate new and exciting ideas, and preached this doctrine throughout his life. I think I got my initial curiosity for working things out from my father — he spent much of his career involved in design engineering. He was always amazed by evolutionary design in the natural world—this resonated with his own views on incremental design in engineering. At school I actually had an aptitude for languages, biology and art; I really disliked mathematics and physics. I started University with no clear view of my future, but fortunately I fell in love with my genetics course from my second year onwards. I have very fond memories of listening to one of my lecturers, Richard Wilson, wax lyrical about a fly mutant called fruity (now known as fruitless). After University I started a PhD working with yeast cell-cycle mutants, but after six months I packed it in. I didn’t realise then but I needed to work on something with legs and a body. An accidental phone call with one of my lecturers in Glasgow, Kim Kaiser, and I found myself working on fruit fly learning and memory in his lab. You can see where this is going: in fly learning and memory, all roads lead to the godfather of neurogenetics Seymour Benzer, and Benzer guided me to one of his F1 progeny, Jeff Hall, and ultimately courtship behavior. The rest as they say is history, or rather, neurogenetics.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Most of my life I have been terrible about asking for advice, and like many people rarely take it. Nonetheless, four pieces of sagely advice stand out for me, and I have tried to live by these ‘truths’.
‘Truth’ number 1: during my aimless teenage years I had been dithering between a career in law or science (in reality I wanted to be David Bowie). My solicitous grandfather, Fred Haugh, told me: “Stephen my lad, this is a very simple dilemma, choose science as it’s a ticket to ride, you will have the opportunity to work in different countries, and meet people from interesting cultures; law will keep you stuck at home”.
‘Truth’ number 2: on leaving Jeff Hall’s lab, it was traditional for the lab to throw a big party for the leaver. This involved a lot of booze, greasy food, and gift giving (a wonderful triumvirate). The lab gave me a RedSox baseball jersey with my name emblazoned on the back, and a box set of Frank Sinatra rare recordings. I was really surprised when Jeff handed me a CD, “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”. I was never a big fan of punk music (The Clash being the exception).“This should be your mantra, live by it and don’t forget it”, Jeff pronounced. Later the penny dropped (it always drops slowly for me): what Jeff was telling me was don’t worry about the unimportant stuff; just worry about getting the science right.
‘Truth’ number 3: did I mention that my wife is the real brains of our operation? She gets me to do things that I don’t like doing.
‘Truth’ number 4: finally, notwithstanding the influence that Kim and Jeff had on me as a scientist, I believe that your peers are very influential. Being intrinsically lazy I have always liked to surround myself with bright people, I think it ups your game.
Which question about your work annoys you the most — and why?
“Is there a human gene for that?” Do I have to say why? Well, the fly has already taught us a great deal about the molecular structure of our nervous system and now it will teach us how this structure functions. Because of the vast array of genetics tools available for the fly, and its rich behavioral repertoire, we can identify the cellular components of neural circuits, map function in these circuits and define causal relationships between neural activity and behavior.
If you weren’t a scientist what would you be; or, what would your ‘alter-ego’ be doing for a living?
My list is endless: delta blues guitarist; David Bowie (circa 1975–1980); or an accomplished architect.
How has the field of Drosophila behavioural genetics changed since you were a PhD student?
When I started my PhD, only the freaks and geeks (myself included) were doing fly behavioral genetics. At that time, neurodevelopmental biology would dwarf the other sessions at meetings; the behavioral talks would be scheduled for the last day, when everyone was either too hungover to concentrate, or checking out to make their flight home. Fast-forward 20 years and things have changed dramatically. The behavioral genetics field has worked extremely hard to understand the organisation and function of the brain, and the challenge now is to understand exactly how the brain’s neural circuits carry out the information processing that directly underlies behavior. At fly meetings, neural circuits and behavior are now de rigueur. This change in fashion has led inevitably to increased competition. No one denies that competition is a good thing, but it also leads to an atmosphere of ‘fear and loathing’. The field is no longer a ‘petulant adolescent’, it has lost some of its immaturity, impulsiveness and sensitivity, it’s getting harder to have the time to be curious about something, work it up, and rejoice in the haphazard and explorative nature of it. We all need to behave better, as scientists we are privileged and fortunate to be working in this field, it’s a gift, and with this comes responsibility, not entitlement, we need to set an example and be better role models for the next generation of fly researchers.
You grew up during the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, how has that affected you as an adult?
I was a middle class kid who avoided most of it by going to Grammar school and University, where I largely ignored it. I didn’t choose my background — thank goodness for happenstance — but I did choose not to get involved. The two communities have moved closer together in some respects, but right now, with pretty much none of the actual protagonists offering any guilt or shame for what happened, it’s crucial we keep reminding them. What it has left me with is a deep distrust for ‘-isms’ and ‘-ists’. I will always take a consensus view, and I guess that’s the way I ‘manage’ our lab.
So which do you prefer, scientific ‘hero’ or ‘anti-hero’?
I have always fallen for the scientific anti-hero. Apart from their obvious scientific achievements, they are often loners, misfits, being mavericks in their thinking and behavior. As in all good movies, you need a scientific anti-hero to serve as a counter for the too good to be true super-hero protagonist. Integrity, honesty, and the ability to say what needs to be said, even if it clears the room, are all hallmarks of my scientific anti-hero, Jeff C. Hall.
You moved your lab from Glasgow, Scotland to Oxford a few years ago, what have you learned from that experience?
With regards to new jobs, Jeff Hall once told me, “Don’t go sideways, only upwards, or do something new, and whatever you do, don’t keep changing jobs”. After giving a seminar in Oxford in 2008, Gero Miesenböck convinced me to apply for a job in his department. Gero is an extremely enthusiastic and persuasive character; I was excited by the amazing work his lab had done developing the first optogenetic techniques, and was very excited by the possibility of interacting with Gero and Scott Waddell’s groups at the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour. So in 2009, we moved our lab to Oxford. Nothing in life is free, so for my sins I would have to tutor neurophysiology to second year medical and physiology students; this was something I was initially terrified about, having zero background in neurophysiology. It was a steep learning curve for me, at times I felt/still feel like I’m only one page ahead of the students in the textbook. After several years of doing this I have actually realised that it has started to cross-fertilize my thinking, and I would even go as far to say I have enjoyed the experience; you are never too late to learn new things.
Where do you feel the most relaxed?
Once a year I take my kids to visit my mum in County Donegal in Ireland. Donegal is blessed with many beautiful sandy beaches and breath-taking scenery. Most of the beaches are empty; sometimes you can have the beach to yourself all day. I feel most relaxed when my kids and I are rock pooling and crabbing with nets and buckets — it takes me back to halcyon days on the west coast of Ireland when I was a kid.
Source: Current Biology, Volume 24, Issue 16