Head of Faculty profile: Willis Samson

Willis Samson tells us why the more you know as a researcher, the more you doubt.

Willis Samson is a Head of Faculty of Diabetes and Endocrinology, based at St Louis University in Missouri, USA.

What are you working on at the moment?

Willis Samson, Head of Faculty - Diabetes & Endocrinology My colleague, Gina Yosten, and I have been working on a collaborative project with Aaron Hsueh (Stanford), Nae Dun (Temple), Kang Chang (Phoenix Pharmaceuticals) and Al Ferguson (Queen’s) using bioinformatics to discover novel peptide hormones, detail their sites of production, determine mechanisms of action, and, importantly, identify their cognate receptors. We have completed the journey from discovery to proof of physiologic relevance with our first identified hormone, Neuronostatin, and are well on our way to completing a similar adventure with our latest discovery, Phoenixin, a peptide that appears to exert important actions in the hypothalamo-pituitary-gonadal axis.

How did you get interested in the above?

My PhD mentor, S.M. McCann, was a dreamer of big dreams. He encouraged me to avoid the trap of descriptive, incremental science, instead to focus on discovery. I trained during the era of major advances in peptide biology and the leaders of the day were my role models. The chance collision of our interests with those of Aaron Hsueh led to our current attempts to translate the information in the human genome into the discovery of novel peptide ligands. It was Aaron’s enthusiasm for the importance of evolutionary conservation of peptide sequences that drove us into this risky but exciting adventure.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Ellis Levin, a clinician scientist whose work and advice I greatly respect, once told me: “… let the data tell you where to go next.”

What are your hopes for your research?

A quote from Johan Wolfgang van Goethe explains everything for me. “Eigentlich weiss man, nur wenn man wenig weiss. Mit dem Wissen wächst der Zweifel.” It translates roughly (my apologies to the native speakers) to the fact that we only are authorities when we know very little, with knowledge comes doubt. I hope our lab continues to provide new insight into the mechanisms of health and disease.

What’s the best thing you’ve done to establish your standing in the field?

For me the most important thing a scientist can do is to expand her or his circle of colleagues, confidants, and collaborators. It has been my good fortune to interact with brilliant, energetic people whose successes I can admire, whose counsel I can rely upon, and whose stories I can enjoy. Contributing to the success of others is an often overlooked, but critically important part of establishing a solid reputation.

What’s the riskiest move you made in your career?

Becoming a Department Chairperson was a risky move because it meant taking on the responsibilities for which a bench scientist is not trained. You actually only come to that realization after you have accepted the job.

What is the most interesting unanswered question in biology/medicine?

I am intrigued by how the human body uses nerves and hormones in a coordinated fashion to maintain homeostasis. The mechanisms underlying that coordination deserve continued scrutiny.

What’s the biggest challenge to research?

I think there are two major roadblocks hindering progress. First, the desperate funding situation, I believe, stifles true innovation. Second, there seems to be little agreement on the meaning of the word itself.

Do you have advice for young people embarking on a research career?

Run away while you still can (ONLY KIDDING!). This is a great career for someone with a desire to learn and a willingness to accept rejection. Not everything we try works and often our attempts to convince reviewers of the importance of our proposals or results fall short. However, if we are committed to the work, we learn from their critiques and in the end succeed. One caveat: don’t stop when you are satisfied you have the answer, keep going until you can convince others.

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