Dana Carroll: Don't be too cautious (Part 1)

Dana Carroll, Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah, has had a remarkable career spanning both chemistry and biology research, including the development of zinc-finger nucleases. We spoke with Dr. Carroll about his career path, his advice for young scientists and what it was like to develop one of the first gene-editing technologies.

Dr. Dana Carroll.

Q: How did you first become interested in science and scientific research?

My father was a scientist, and although he didn't really bring his work home, I at least had a genetic predisposition to becoming one as well. Still, when it came to my own interest, I think I was just following my nose. I was interested in and pretty good at math and physical sciences – actually, my training is mostly in chemistry – so I started out as more of a physical scientist than a biological scientist.

Q: How did your path lead you to an academic career and starting your own lab?

I took a very standard route. I did an undergraduate degree, a PhD, two post-docs, and then I applied for academic jobs. I loved working in the lab, I loved addressing research questions, and at the time, that was the way that most people continued to do research.

I really got interested in biology as a graduate student. I was at UC Berkeley, and I was in the chemistry department, but the lab I was in and the neighboring labs were interested in biological aspects of chemistry. I started taking advantage of things outside the chemistry department, taking or auditing courses in biophysics, and biochemistry. So when I finished my PhD and was looking for a post-doc, I applied to labs that were doing cell or molecular biology.

I think it's hard for students these days to imagine that you couldn't clone a gene!

I actually did two post-docs; my second was with Don Brown at the Carnegie Institution in Baltimore where I got to work with DNA directly. At that time, his lab was working with purified genes before molecular cloning was available. I think it's hard for students these days to imagine that you couldn't clone a gene! Don and a few other people around the world had figured out ways to physically isolate repeated genes. Because you could physically isolate them, we could begin to characterize them using emerging techniques. I was the first person in Don's lab to use a restriction enzyme; the first to run a horizontal agarose gel; the first person to make a molecular clone, when it finally came along in the mid-1970s. So my entire career has been one excitement after another as new technologies made it possible for us to address questions that were much more difficult to address in prior times.

The Carroll Lab in 2004.

Q: What was the transition like when you moved from being a scientist at the bench to starting your own lab and managing others? What advice do you have for other young academics just starting up their own labs?

When I made that transition, I was still able to work in the lab. These days, when people start their jobs, they're often immediately doing a lot of administration. They're hiring and managing new people, they're writing more grant proposals, they're dealing with things that I didn't really have to deal with when I got started. I think we really aren't trained to make the transition from post-doctoral researcher to faculty member, but we have a lot of models on the route to becoming a faculty member. You work in a lot of different labs and are exposed to a lot of different management styles, and that's sufficient to develop a style that suits you.

Don't just do things that are safe, but do things that'll excite you and potentially have an impact.

One thing I would say to people starting out is - don't be too cautious. Particularly if you get a good startup package, you shouldn't be afraid to pursue research on topics that you feel passionate about. Don't just do things that are safe, but do things that'll excite you and potentially have an impact.