Outside the Box
In a war of scientific words, researcher and
educator Marilyn Kozak knows how to win.
Kozak, PhD, professor of biochemistry at UMDNJ-Robert Wood
Johnson Medical School.
in science is only made by asking tough questions and by thinking
out of the proverbial box of predictability, according to
Aaron Shatkin, PhD, director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology
and Medicine (CABM). Being able to stand up to storms of criticism
also comes with this kind of territory - a land Marilyn Kozak
knows well. One particularly vitriolic scientific battle of
wits in print (about protein synthesis in eukaryotic cells
and viruses) pitted her against 87 researchers. Yet, debating
with her is not always the smartest route to take, Shatkin
says, unless you enjoy chocolate cream cheese pies.
of the most effective, creative" scientists with whom Shatkin
has worked, "she is always steeped in controversy," he says.
They've researched together in the lab and have co-authored
numerous publications during the course of their long-standing
working relationship. So, the appearance of a chocolate cream
cheese pie on his desk early one morning at CABM was a surprise
that made him smile. It was "a peace offering" from Kozak.
"The pie," he laughs, "arrived after we had been disagreeing
about something. There is no question that she is extraordinarily
solid and able when writing and criticizing data. She's a
great editor for my own work."
admits, "I encounter fierce opposition almost every time I
try to publish, including papers that end up becoming Citation
Classics." On the ISI Highly Cited web site, Kozak is acknowledged
as one of the 250 most cited researchers in the world for
published articles within the last 20 years. "Citation is
a direct measure of influence of a subject and it is also
a strong indicator of scientific contribution, since it is
derived from a pattern of interaction among millions of published
articles," according to Marie McVeigh of the Institute for
Scientific Information (ISI).
of The Johns Hopkins University, where she earned her doctorate
in microbiology, Kozak was introduced to that subject (and
to logic, she adds) as an undergraduate at a small liberal
arts college for women. At Hopkins, she was mentored by Dan
Nathans, MD, 1978 Nobel Prize winner for Physiology and Medicine.
She explains why her life's passion - understanding the mechanism
by which cells make proteins - is so important. "Early on,
I recognized two important features that have to do with gene
punctuation, that is, defining where the protein coding portion
of a gene starts. One discovery concerned the actual mechanism;
it's known as the ribosome scanning mechanism." The second
finding was a particular sequence that helps define the start
site, a discovery which came at a time when people had begun
cloning and sequencing genes. "My contribution helped them
interpret what they were finding."
she moved away from laboratory-based research to devote more
time to teaching and writing. "I really wanted to work on
a course properly, which I had never been able to do when
teaching had to be squeezed in between experiments." Offered
last year for the first time, her course focused on critical
analysis. "Students need to understand why some experiments
do NOT prove the point, instead of always being shown the
big experiments that are 'so right' as to seem inevitable,"
she explains. Kozak believes that critical thinking skills
are also essential in reading and interpreting scientific
literature. She worries about the intrusion of politics in
science journalism, too.
politics," she admits.
by the Peace Corps in the 1960s as an instructor at Nangrahar
University School of Medicine in Afghanistan, she recalls
traveling to Pakistan, via the famous Khyber Pass, to visit
a U.S. Air Force base where Peace Corps volunteers were allowed
to see movies and buy hotdogs. "What was a happy R&R outing
for us became the escape route for Afghans desperate to flee
the subsequent wars. Shortly before leaving Afghanistan, I
camped near the caves of the giant Buddhas in Bamian. It is
still hard for me to believe that those magnificent structures
were so stupidly reduced to rubble. When I was there, the
needs for schools, hygiene and clinics were immense but the
country was hopeful. What has happened since is heartbreaking
for them and us."
for that pie, there isn't much about Kozak that surprises
Shatkin. "She is one of the most original people I've ever
interacted with," he says. And by the way, "Her course is
fabulous. One of my grad students took it. When I asked her
if I could sign up, she said no. No faculty were allowed."