Archive for April, 2018

The Power of Persistence

Monday, April 30th, 2018

Persistence Figure

In this blog post I will explore my own experience with persistence in the Academic Sector. I was thinking about this history that went on for more than a decade and came up with some closure based on real facts. As a start, I will write about something that happened to me in the Academic arena that I’ve named “the power of persistence” and how it can affect young scientists. This history started almost 15 years ago, when I was doing my Ph.D. thesis studying cancer when I stumbled with some DNA regions that were transcribed even though there were no indications that these regions were translated into proteins. At that time, they called these regions “junk DNA” and they make up to 98% of our genome. I was excited but at the same time confused when discussing this with my Ph.D. advisor at that time. She told me that it was just something the method caught by error and to throw it away. She said: “keep working and looking for regions that are differentially expressed.” Well, even though I did what she said, I started digging the literature about regions of the DNA that are transcribed but not translated (now you can see how curious I am…). Some literature here and there but nothing very exciting. I’ve collected mostly everything published about these “junk DNA” regions that were transcribed and started seeing that several of them have some function and are more expressed in tumors or even less expressed when comparing with normal cells. However, lots of literature discussing that these regions could be artifacts like my advisor told me. Contrary to everything that was told me and that I’ve read, I had a gut feeling and thought: “There is something here. I am going to read everything about it and come up with a hypothesis”. Of course there were microRNAs and other “small” RNAs being studied and published but these guys were different. One year before finishing my Ph.D. thesis with what was “presentable” under the scientific “status quo” I came to my Ph.D. advisor and said: “ I have all this growing evidence about these RNAs that do no code for proteins and want to write a review about it. What do you think?”. Her response was blunt: “You won’t be able to because reviews are just for well-known and established researchers. You are a mere Ph.D. Student” (she did not want to tell me: you are a nobody; but that is how I felt). Hesitant, I started writing by myself a review article and started writing letters to Editors of Scientific Journals explaining the importance of this growing evidence. Of course, I staterd from top to bottom regarding the scientific journals. As I remind correctly, I’ve got at least twenty “Nos” (or more…). In the meantime, I’ve finished my Ph.D. thesis with something that my Ph.D. advisor was happy about and moved to the United States (I did my Ph.D. in Brazil) to do a Post-Doctoral Degree at Harvard University. With 90% of the review article already written, as soon as I’ve got to Harvard University in Boston, I showed the article to my new Advisor there. Guess what? Same answers: “this is nonsense and reviews are just for stars in Science” and “You are a nobody”. Interestingly, after sending numerous letters to the Editors, one of them, a japonese Editor at the Gene Journal replied and told me to send what I had until then. After a week that I’ve sent the piece, he replied: “I like it. Finish it and we will send it for revision”. This was 2005 and against all odds somebody at least gave me a chance. I was ecstactic! After 2-3 weeks more I got a positive response and the review article was accepted by the Gene jornal. Remember that I was told more than once that I was a nobody in Science and that review articles were for the “Stars”. More than a decade forward, the first review article about non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) is one of the most cited articles from Gene (PMID:16111837) and after this one I wrote several more; two others for Gene – the “ncRNA Trilogy” as I classify it today (PMID:17113247; PMID:18226475) and other Reviews for different journals that include Drug Discovery Today (PMID:19429503), Bioessays (my review was in the Cover of Bioessays in 2010 – PMID:20544733). In addition, I edited and wrote a Book Chapter (for more information on the book click here) about this subject that was featured in several scientific journals and News outlets around the world. Today the Gene trilogy sum around 1,200 citations and all articles that I’ve wrote about non-coding RNAs approximatelly 1,600 citations. It might not sound like a lot; however, for journals that have a low to medium Impact Factor (IF), it is indeed a lot. In the meantime, there was an explosion of articles (experimental and reviews) discussing the importance of non-coding RNAs, especially the so-called long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) in several aspects of eukaryotic cells and the importance of those in complex and rare diseases. All of this story (I tried to make a long story very short for this post) is to show how powerfull persistence can be even if everybody around you tell you that you are wrong, or tell you not to do something. Even discourajing you saying that you are not capable or “famous” enough. Sorry for the word, but I think of it today as total “bullshit”. If you have an idea, identify or discover something interesting that has potential to become of importante not just in science but even to start a company go ahead. The sky is the limit. The take home message from this post is: believe in your “gut feeling” and go forward. Show them they are wrong! So wrong…