An interview with Roland Dunbrack

Name: Roland Dunbrack10211962183841783 - Roland Dunbrack

Current Job: Professor, Molecular Therapeutics

Scientific Discipline/Field: Computationtal structural biology

Country: United States

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q,+, etc.): G


Twitter or other social media handle: @RolandDunbrack on Twitter

What does your job involve?

I lead a small group of graduate students and postdocs and programmers in performing statistical and analytical studies on the 150,000+ experimentally determined structures of proteins and protein complexes that are now available. From these, we develop the ability to predict structures of new proteins and design experiments to determine how they work, and even to design new functionality in proteins, such as how to kill cancer cells. Sometimes I have to write grants…

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

I did a PhD in Biophysics at Harvard and a postdoc in Pharm Chem at UCSF. As a postdoc, I applied for about 20 jobs in 1996, and only one was looking specifically for what I do (computational structural biology) and consequently it was the only one I got. Other places only later discovered that molecular structure could be helpful in drug development or even in basic cell biology.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

I lost a Science Journalism Internship put on by AAAS as I was finishing my PhD. I was in the final round of selection but was told by the organizer at AAAS that they couldn’t place me because none of the editors wanted a writer whose writing sample had been published in the Gay Community News, a really good LGBT community newspaper in Boston at that time. It was “too political” for them. I think it was homophobia, plain and simple. It was the only job I did not get to my knowledge because of my sexuality. In grad school in the late 80s and early 90s, I had been educating AIDS Action Committee volunteers for years in a 3 hour session once a month about the human immune system, DNA makes RNA makes protein, how HIV works, and how HIV drugs worked, so I was pretty good at explaining science to non-scientists. Sometimes people with HIV would walk up to me and say “Now I finally know what is going on within my own body…” because I did not talk down to them and gave them the whole story. So I strongly regret not being given the opportunity to learn how to be a science reporter, to see if I was any good at it, and whether that could have or should have been my career. I don’t regret the successful science career I have had. But there was another equally worthy one out there I will always wonder about but for the narrowmindedness of some newspaper editors.

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

The vast majority have been very good. I sing in an LGBT community chorus and some of them come to my concerts. Most of the folks in my research group come to my concerts. I got my institution to offer same-sex partner benefits just by asking them to (even though I did not need them at the time). My institution has written profiles on me for our quarterly fund-raising brochures about my science that doesn’t hesitate to mention my status as an LGBT individual and my activities in the gay community.

Early on, I had only one weird interaction where a colleague thought I would understand her husband better because he also was something that people view as “socially unacceptable” like me being gay; her husband was an alcoholic. I decided not to explain how inappropriate a comparison that was, and instead I offered my support as a friend to them both as her husband entered treatment.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated.)?

I had some great science teachers in the Waltham (Mass.) Public Schools, none of them openly LGBT, but there were a couple we knew about and that helped a bit. I had strong role models for research at Harvard College, again none of them LGBT. Only when I came out as a student at Cambridge University in England did I meet some gay scientists who were a few years older than me and I learned a lot watching them go about their careers and their lives in pretty matter-of-fact ways. I wish it has happened much sooner.

What are your plans for the future?

I’d like to keep running my research group until I’m about 70 (maybe 15 more years). Then retire and travel and write with my partner, staying interested and involved with the world of science and education and politics.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think these efforts at visibility for LGBT scientists of all ages and professions and experiences within the LGBT world will be very helpful to young people just getting started in the studies and those further along at any stage of their careers. This is the very big upside to social media and you’re putting it to great use.


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