Unconventional Wisdom
Steven L. McKnight

DOI 10.1016/j.cell.2009.08.016 (Download pdf)

"May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
And may your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young"

Bob Dylan - 1973

When asked to compose a brief article to be directed toward an audience consisting of young scientists, my first reaction was—geez, young scientists don’t need advice at all, they rule. The majority of genuinely profound discoveries made over the millennia have come from young scientists. There are numerous reasons for this. The young mind is maximally acute, and the young scientist is minimally distracted. It’s sink-or-swim for the young scientist, so he or she is hungrier and fights harder to bring home the bacon. Finally, the young scientist brings little baggage to a problem. I would trade the supposed wisdom gained from a longstanding career in science for the combination of naiveté and exuberance any day. For these reasons, the best advice I can give comes from one of Bob Dylan’s songs on his Planet Waves album: “may you stay, forever young.” The starting point I was given posed the question of where I thought the best opportunities for discoveries might lie in the years ahead. The answer to this question is simple—scientific opportunities abound everywhere. Of course, we hope to someday understand the molecular basis of memory and the magic of regeneration, but these are only two of hundreds of watershed opportunities for transformative discovery standing in front of us in the decades to come.

Let’s consider two contrasting articles, published by eminent scientists, that influenced me early during my own career. The first was authored by the renowned geneticist Gunther Stent. Having used Stent’s wonderful textbook on genetics (Stent, 1963) during my undergraduate training at the University of Texas, I viewed Stent as a scientific icon. Subsequently, Stent published an essay in Science that argued that the field of molecular biology was washed up, done, kaput (Stent, 1968). Yes, by then the genetic code had been cracked, Crick’s central dogma had been confirmed, and the nature of the gene was understood in atomic detail. On the other hand, I was just entering the field of biological research, and I viewed the subdiscipline of molecular biology as having unlimited promise. Much to my dismay, a scientist of Stent’s stature had argued the field was dead.

The second article of influence was an essay published in Cell by Charles Yanofsky wherein he questioned whether the field of microbiology might be at the end of its rope (Yanofsky, 1991). At the time, the lion’s share of attention and grant funding were going toward studies of eukaryotic organisms, and Yanofsky wondered whether the end was near for studies of prokaryotes. Yanofsky, however, came to the exact opposite conclusion from Stent—instead of announcing the demise of microbiology, he boldly predicted that the well was far from dry. Looking back on what has been discovered in the field of microbiology over the past three decades—quorum sensing, molecular mechanisms of pathogenesis, riboswitches, genome sequences, thermophiles and extremophiles, the microbial flora inhabiting our bodies, and so on—Yanofsky’s forward-reaching conclusion could not have been more spot on. Naming where the most exciting breakthroughs will come from in the ensuing decades is way beyond what I could possibly muster! In this regard, I pay special homage to an early president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Vannevar Bush. It was his words that so beautifully described science as the “endless frontier” (Bush, 1945). Those two words gave me plenty of inspiration to overcome any discouragement transiently resulting from the diametrically opposing conclusion of Stent. They are as true today as they were in 1945 when penned by Dr. Bush.

Reasoned advice to the young scien­tist is to be careful not to become overly focused. Yes, to be competitive, the young scientist must be at the top of the game in his or her chosen field. On the other hand a scientist broadly exposed to disciplines outside of his or her cho­sen field will enjoy distinct advantages. The subdisciplines of biological and biomedical research evolve rapidly, and it is often the case that the most radical of transformations to a field come from outsiders who bring a combination of fresh perspectives and naiveté. It is for this reason that medical students—if they choose in a genuine and dedicated manner to have a career in science— can sometimes be equally prepared for extended success as PhDs. Medical students have to learn anatomy, physiol­ogy, pathology, genetics, biochemistry, pharmacology, immunology, and other fields of science required to understand how the human body operates. Modern PhD programs often focus the training of young scientists so acutely that, as a subdiscipline matures, liability to extinc­tion becomes a genuine threat. For the PhD student, one should consider the benefits of attending seminars—while in graduate school and during post­doctoral training—orthogonal to what is being studied in the training labora­tory. The much stronger tendency for a young trainee is never to miss the semi­nars most closely related to his or her research, even though the young scien­tist already has a 99% mastery of that particular subdiscipline. Bottom line, the breadth of your scientific training will be of equivalent value to its depth.

The question is not where to explore for new opportunities on the horizon of science, but instead, how to go about looking for them. Here the balance of “inductive inquiry” (I2) and “hypothesis­driven” (HD) approaches becomes the crux. A recent article written by Fran­cisco Ayala beautifully recounts how the plusses and minuses of the two approaches have been debated by phi­losophers over the past several centu­ries (Ayala, 2009). The I2 approach, in its most pure form, entails adventure into uncharted territories—neither guided nor bridled by hypothesis. The HD approach is built on scholarship and smarts and is fundamentally driven by theory. If X and Y facts are understood, this knowledge should facilitate the hypothesis essential for solving the unknown Z. Scientists, just like most people, are far more comfort­able with the known than the unknown. If one can embark on an adventure with known variables in pocket, the comfort factor alone will nudge the endeavor in favor of the HD direction.

Another influential factor perennially favoring the HD side of the equation is money. Except in the most unusual of circumstances, other people are mak­ing the decision for us as to where we get to explore. Science requires money, and money is doled out by committees that evaluate our research plans. Pro­posals thin on HD, no matter how open and uncharted the territory chosen for inquiry, tend to be rejected. As such the I2 approach almost always loses out to the HD approach when it comes to fund­ing decisions. Bottom line, conventional wisdom almost always prevails—this, I advise, is something you will have to constantly fight in order to carve out a truly innovative career in science.

Any research endeavor we might choose to pursue is, of course, an I2/HD blend. As articulated by Charles Darwin, “Let theory guide your observations,” oth­erwise one “might as well go into a gravel pit and count the pebbles and describe the colors. How odd it is that anyone should not see that observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service” (Darwin, 1903). A scientist cannot easily shed the knowledge causing him or her to proceed on an adventure without bearing elements of scholarship, theory, and bias. If, however, this knowledge is sufficiently acute and dominating, it likely leads the adventure in the same direc­tion being pursued by many other scien­tists. Put in other words, the dominating hypotheses in all fields—like the Pied Piper of Hamlin—tend to channel scien­tists into the same directions. A buffering of the power of the HD approach requires a purposeful squinting of the eyes so that a dose of I2 flavor can be added to the mix. Please understand that I am not advocating the mindless data gathering that has become trendy with the advent of “omics” technologies (DNA microar­rays, whole genome association scans, and the like). These approaches do little more than count and color Darwin’s peb­bles. What I instead recommend is fresh scientific inquiry into under-appreciated biological or medical phenomena that presently exist in a mystic state.

Central to my argument favoring inductive inquiry is the attitude that we know so little about biology that we can­not even anticipate the nature of major discoveries to unfold in the future. Oth­ers, no doubt, are more perceptive than I. But I can legitimately say that I had no clue that eukaryotic genes would be segmented into introns and exons, that RNA could perform catalytic reactions, and that small RNAs would be able to self-amplify and profoundly regulate biological pathways in organisms rang­ing from spinach to worms to humans. Cast in a different light, I pose the ques­tion of whether our biomedical research enterprise would be better or worse off had every single specific aim of every single grant ever submitted to the NIH been perfectly completed if—in payment to the devil—we had to give up the totally unanticipated discoveries that were never once written as a specific aim in any grant application?

So, if one buys into the utility of the foggy, eye-squinting I2 approach, how might a young scientist pursue this course and decide what to do? The actual choice of direction is the easiest problem to solve. One simply has to look where the trends are headed and go the other way. Here, for conceptual purposes only, I suggest a “pin the tail on the donkey” approach. A randomly assembled chart is printed up containing squares labeled with all of our 20 to 30 thousand genes. Of these, we know lots about some, a bit about others, yet almost nothing of the remainder. We slap on a blindfold then throw the dart against the wall. Chances are reasonably good that the dart will land on an “unknown” gene—as long as the contestant does not peek around the blindfold and aim the dart at the squares adorned with the comfortable names that already appear every day in the literature. That the unknown gene does something critical is supported by the fact that it’s been kept in place by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. That every gene and every protein are both interesting and important is incontrovertible. This being the case, why would anyone want to work on a gene or protein already staked out by dozens of other scientists?

Why do we choose to be scientists? Most fundamentally, we do so because science offers us the chance to make a discovery—no matter how large or small—never before conceived by another human. Two hundred years ago, the opportunity for discovery is what drove a band of adventurous souls to join Meri­wether Lewis and William Clark to sail up the Missouri river in hopes of finding a passage across the northwest. Nothing, I propose, can be more rewarding than the sheer joy of discovery. It is notable, how­ever, that those mavericks who signed on with Lewis and Clark experienced 99% slog to the 1% of their time spent miracu­lously stumbling over new valleys or pas­sages. Scientific research, likewise, is a head-bumping slog. If we are lucky, the slog is periodically punctuated by unbri­dled joy. In this time of tight grant funding and a challenging job market, the best I can offer is to encourage young scientists to trust your instincts and stay on your uniquely chosen path.

I close with a personal reflection. When I was a youngster, I loved sports and could think of nothing better than a career in professional athletics. The reason for this was not based on talent— had it been, I’d perhaps now be a retired football player coaching at some high school or college. No, the reason for this was that I simply loved sports. I was unafraid of training and working to foster my ambitions for achievement because it never felt like work at all. As, through adolescence, I came to realize that my innate talents in athletics were clearly inadequate for a professional career, I was haunted by the question of what I might do for a living. Out of serendipity, I found my way into the field of biological research. Lo and behold, I found that chasing scientific adventure was hardly work at all but instead was a joyous endeavor not unlike what I’d experienced at an earlier stage of my life in athletics. To the young scientist, I leave this final question. Does science feel like a job, or is it the case that vocation matches avocation, such that you can’t wait to get to the lab, such that it does not feel like work at all? If so, nothing can stop you and may you indeed “stay, forever young.”


I thank Cori Bargman, Don Brown, Joanne Chory, Mike Dyer, Charlie Emerson, Joe Goldstein, Rich Losick, Mort Meyerson, Mark Ptashne, Bill Neaves, Mike Rosen, Peter Walter, Xiaodong Wang, Char­ley Yanofsky, and trainees in the McKnight lab for invaluable input on the composition of this Essay.


Ayala, F.J. (2009). Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 106, 10033–10039.

Bush, V. (1945). Science, The Endless Frontier: A Report to the President by Vannevar Bush, Direc­tor of the Office of Scientific Research and Devel­opment (Washington, DC: United States Govern­ment Printing Office).

Darwin, F. (1903). More Letters of Charles Darwin (London: Murray).

Stent, G.S. (1963). Molecular Biology of Bacterial Viruses (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Co.).

Stent, G.S. (1968). Science 160, 390–395.

Yanofsky, C. (1991). Cell 65, 199–200.


King of Blue

Steven L. McKnight - August 2009

Unexpected things happen in life, that’s about all I’ve learned.  Some events are positive – others are negative.  I’m about to see my 60th birthday as I write this story. It’s the autumn of my life and as good a time as any to look back. 

Like most people, I prefer to look back to the good rather than the bad – but the good is always embedded in the bad and vice-versa.  It’s also the case that stories can’t be told in a vacuum, so I start this story with my processing “in country” at the 90th replacement center in Long Binh, Vietnam.  I’d performed poorly in my first year of college.  1968 was a bad year to flunk out of college.  I was outfitted with flack jacket, helmet, poncho liner and M16 rifle in Xuan Loc, assigned to a tank battery at Phu Loi, and deposited into my assigned tank section in Phuc Vinh – in proximity to a region called the Iron Triangle.

My fatigues were bright green, not having had time to fade into the colors of the uniforms worn by the old-timers who knew the score.  My boots were shiny, no time to wear into scruff.  My skin was pale and soft - all beacons defining the looks of an FNG – fucking new guy.  Like FNG’s before me and after, I was avoided with disdain by everyone except other FNG’s.

Two tanks per section, five guys per tank – commander, driver, gunner, two ammo loaders.  Tanks were 26-ton relics from world war two, called dusters - two 40 millimeter pom-pom guns protruding from a washtub-like turret.  Everyone but the driver sat on top – inside was a steel coffin where death came from land mines or rockets.  Tanks were worthless.  The Viet Cong (VC) in the Iron Triangle had long since figured them out.  Whether protecting, ostensibly, a convoy – or accompanying a platoon of infantry in random jaunts through the jungle – tanks made two things, a bunch of racket and a ripe target.  The VC could hear tanks from miles away.  They knew how to hide, which is easy in the jungle, or simply blow the tank up with a land mine or a rocket propelled grenade.  An incessant air campaign gave the VC a steady supply of ordinance for land mines in the form of bombs that failed to explode.  The Russians and Chinese gave the enemy plenty of rocket propelled grenades.  Tanks were worthless.

I didn’t know these things – or much of anything else pertinent to survival.  Old timers did.  Lots to learn, 99% being on-the-job.  Take your daily prophylactics for malaria and have a steady case of the runs.  Skip them, get mosquito bit, get the fever, and get choppered to the 93rd evacuation hospital.  Sticking with acumen for the shortcut, I chose and enjoyed/suffered the latter option.

A Cajun from Lousiana commanded the tank, a strapping guy from rural Washington was the gunner, a black guy from Georgia was the driver.  Jimmy Poole – another Lousiana coon ass – joined me as an ammo loader and FNG partner.  Our only other companion was a feral dog – tank mascot – Sam.  For army guys, the tour of duty was one year.  The Cajun tank commander had been in country nearly that long, just about as hard-bitten, just about as far from FNG status as a draftee could get.  The driver and gunner were somewhere in-between – Poole and I had a whole year in front of us. 

The feral dog had been with the tank for three or four years.  Soul was a better description of Sam than mascot.  He’d seen 3 or 4 full rotations through that one tank – seen FNG’s rotating through the cycle over and over and over.  Sam and the tank were the constants, the rest of us just transients.  Sam’s master was Jordan, the easy-going tank driver.  Sam, unlike the old timers, showed me no disdain.  He’d look me in the eye and not avoid me.  As you’ll see, Sam had magic. 

The first six months went fast.  My FNG status was resolved a month or so into the tour.  The tank crew had to make a run into a jungle fire support base (FSB) being clobbered, had to bring them a transmission for a broken tank that needed fixing before the shit-hole could be evacuated.  We flipped a coin, lost the call – meaning our tank had to lead the rescue convoy (the other tank of the section won the coin flip and ran slack at the rear of the convoy).  Our destination was FSB Dacus, named after an infantryman killed in a stay-behind ambush earlier in the war.  We headed out of Phuc Vinh up toward highway 14 and veered off at Dong Xoai onto a logging road leading into the heart of War Zone D. 

Troops at Dacus had spilled the beans to local villagers that the towel was being thrown in – the FSB would be evacuated any day.  The VC were connected and resourceful.  Anticipating withdrawal, they set up an ambush on the jungle road several miles outside of Dacus.  They buried a land mine where a culvert bridge spanned a stream, put bunkers backed up into the jungle on either side of road.  First vehicle over the stream gets whacked by the mine, convoy stops - pinned in on either side by the jungle, ambush chews it up. 

The luck of it was that the VC didn’t know that one of the tanks at FSB Dacus was busted.  Our rescue convoy approached the ambush from the wrong direction.  Rumbling down the jungle road, our tank crew saw a stick protruding from a puddle – paper note impaled atop the stick. We got a Kit Carson scout (VC turncoat) to read the note – “beware Vietnamese civilians, do not use this road today” – spooky. We called this up to the colonel flying round and round above us in a command and control helicopter, sage advice – keep going.

A mile or two up the road we came upon the stream and culvert where the VC had buried the mine.  Infantrymen walking alongside our tank saw bunkers on both sides of the jungle road just beyond the stream.  Get that tank up here and blow those bunkers.  We loaded up the pom-pom guns, rumbled over the culvert – boom – we’d sprung the ambush from the wrong direction.  People, rifles, ammo, dog flying up in the air.  I landed upside down, dazed – ran into jungle.  Helicopter gun ships firing, the screaming firefight was over in no time.  VC were smart, bolted – they had no purchase on an ambush sprung from the wrong direction.  The convoy limped into Dacus that night sans one tank.  I was hurting, it rained all night and I slept in a foxhole filled to the brim with water.  Next morning we put a new transmission in the broken tank, abandoned Dacus by backtracking out of the jungle.  No longer was I an FNG, action/wounds trumped both innocence and limited time in country.

After six months of boredom punctuated, infrequently, by violence – Jordan – Sam’s master, rotated home.  Sam chose me to replace Jordan.  It’s 1970, American involvement peaking in 1968/69 had begun to decline.  Our unit was shut down.  We drove the tanks back to Long Bihn and petrified them in cosmoline for use in a future war.  Poole, Sam and I got reassigned to a new unit.  Irrespective of Nixon’s benevolence in “Vietnamizing” the war, we still had to finish out our tour of duty.

Poole, Sam and I loaded up in the bed of a duce and a half with a ragtag crew, departed Long Binh – headed west through Cu Chi and Go Dau - genuine “Indian country”. We veered away from highway 22 at Tay Ninh (rocket city) then headed west till dead-ending at fire support base Blue, smack on top of the Cambodian border.  I’m guessing it was a 6 hour ride with twists and turns, who could have cared – someone else was driving the truck.  The mood at Blue was mean, it had been overrun a month earlier by VC sappers – tanks and guns blown up, a bunch of GI’s killed. 

The hardscrabble character of Blue was embodied in Mutt, the mascot of the artillery unit occupying the fire base.  Never seen a meaner looking dog – adorned with a face scarred by a life of fighting.  As we hopped off the truck, Mutt tore into Sam with fury.  The local GI’s cheered Mutt on while Poole and I watched helplessly.  Lo and behold Sam whipped Mutt.  Poole, Sam and I dug a hootch and settled in for the night as unwelcome guests.

Next morning Poole and I were sent out on some worthless recon mission.  Upon returning I started hunting up Sam – no luck.  Some lifer gunnery sergeant told me that he thought he saw Sam being loaded on a resupply truck heading back to Long Bihn to pick up more ammunition for the big, eight inch guns.  I tracked this story up to the captain of the artillery unit – yes, he told me that one dog was enough on FSB Blue – yes, he’d ordered Sam to be shipped out on the resupply run and abandoned along the way.  I went flame-throwing mad, told the son-of-a bitch that I was going to kill him – dove at his throat and tried to choke him to death. 

Got pulled off and calmed down enough to explain what Sam meant to me and all the guys who’d preceded me back on that rumbling tank blown up earlier in my stay.  The artillery captain agreed to let me take off on the resupply run the following morning – drivers showed me where Sam had been kicked off.  It was Go Dau – legitimate Indian country.  They dropped me off and continued their way back to Long Binh for resupply, I spent the day searching the environs of Go Dau for Sam – lone, stupid GI with his M16, flack jacket and helmet looking for an abandoned dog.  No luck by the time the resupply truck picked me on their way back to Blue – three or four hours of zig-zagging our way through jungle roads we rumbled back into Blue.  Although I’d reconciled myself into letting the cock sucking captain live, everyone at Blue knew the story and the score.  Sam had kicked Mutt’s ass, the captain – while I was on recon – had sealed Sam’s fate.  I still had Jimmy Poole as my best buddy, but I’d managed to lose Sam – what a fucking bummer.

Two days later Poole and I were sitting in a bunker with a couple of other GI’s, settling in for the first watch of perimeter guard duty for the night.  The bunker happened to face east, back towards Long Bihn.  Not believing our eyes, here came Sam trotting right back into FSB Blue.  The news spread over the firebase like wildfire – how could that dog, having spent less than a day at Blue – find his way back through 50 kilometers of intersecting jungle roads! No more fights with Mutt, Sam was the accepted “King of Blue”.  Other than the birth of my kids, and the time my son made a spectacular interception in the Texas state high school football championship game, no time of my life compares with the sight of Sam trotting up to my bunker at FSB Blue. 

The next three months slogged on in an uneventful manner, and it then came time for the artillery unit at Blue to be shut down.  Knowing that Poole and I were to be assigned to a machine gun unit in the Central Highlands for the final months of our respective tours, and knowing that Sam could not join us in that setting, I convinced the captain to let me go back to Saigon to find a way to ship Sam back to the United States.  Got him the shots and papers, paid two months of wages to Pan Am to fly Sam home, saw him off, and shipped off with Poole on a helicopter taking us up into the Annimite mountains for our final duty.  The Army lost track of both Poole and me, so we had no mail for those final three months.  The joyous day of departure finally came – boarded a flight out of Cam Ran Bay and made it home safe and sound.  First call to family broke the news – Pan Am had let Sam out of his travel cage in San Francisco and lost him.

I’ve been haunted ever since.  Would it have been best to leave Sam in Vietnam where everything was unraveling and he had no tank and crew to call his own?  Or was it better that he be given the opportunity to find his way in a foreign land unforgiving of his skills.  San Francisco airport is a bleak place, but Americans don’t eat dog.  I, too, wonder whether the best of me was left in Vietnam – a place where neither ambition nor politics meant anything – a place and time where life was lived close to the bone – a place where one got to meet the likes of the King of Blue. 

Sam - AKA "King of Blue" - with Jimmy Poole at Fire Support Base Blue - circa 1970