Cell biologist Michael Marks, PhD, studies strange, specific organelles that are only found in certain cell types in our bodies. By dissecting the ways these lysosome-related organelles are assembled, he has gained novel insights into how these mechanisms are thwarted in a rare genetic disease called Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome (HPS). The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) honored his distinguished efforts to advance science by naming Dr. Marks as an AAAS Fellow in 2016. The AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society, including nearly 250 affiliated societies and academies of science. Dr. Marks, who leads a research laboratory at CHOP and also is a professor in the department of Pathology and Lab Medicine, and the department of Physiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, accepted this distinction at a forum during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston held Feb. 18. In honor of this special occasion, we chatted with Dr. Marks about some of the key aspects of his successful scientific career. The edited conversation follows below.
The AAAS recognized your work in pigment cells and your commitment over the last two decades to figuring out a model for the melanocyte system. What keeps you motivated to pursue this work in your lab?
I guess part of it is curiosity. You find something new, and then you want to pursue it and figure out how it works. I like to understand how the whole system works. But there is always something that comes up — something that doesn’t quite fit into your model — which means there is something wrong with your model, right? I always want to improve the models and help us understand more.
In the last few years, I’ve also been going to patient-oriented conferences. They’re mostly geared to scientists, but we sometimes have the chance to interact with patients and their families. That has been very motivating, particularly with HPS. You know these kids are walking around with a death sentence. In some forms of HPS, the main problem is they get lung fibrosis, which eventually kills them in their 40s or 50s. They’re really good kids and really good people. You want to do something for them.
What has been the most surprising thing that you’ve encountered career-wise as a scientist?
Having good collaborators has been critical, and they have been surprisingly easy to find. Everything I do is absolutely dependent on having good collaborators. I don’t know how to do anything in my lab anymore! I knew nothing about platelets or lung epithelial cells or pigment cells when I started. CHOP also has a really good culture that helps clinicians get together with scientists. It’s important to know people who sit in both the clinical and basic science world, so that you can see the connections to each other’s work.
What advice do you have for young researchers who are beginning their careers and hope to have their own labs one day?
The most important thing is coming up with a good question. I was trained as an immunologist. A lot of the folks who I trained with in the field were studying the major histocompatibility complex. And that’s what they planned to study for the rest of their lives. But I began to realize that there were a lot more scientists in that area than there were interesting questions. So I kept my eyes open for new areas to go into, and I was one of the first people to get into the biology of these lysosome-related organelles, which is I believe the whole reason why the AAAS is giving me this honor. If I had these blinders on that I’m only going to work on major histocompatibility complex, I would have missed this whole biology that is really, really interesting and has led to a successful career. So my advice: Go outside of your comfort zone, and find something really interesting to go after.
Read more about Dr. Marks and his research in the December/January issue of Bench to Bedside.