by Elio, Linc Sonenshein, and Roberto
As their years in the profession pass, practicing scientists might ponder on a question regarding their future. When I retire, how can I remain in science? In the United States mandatory retirement was abolished in 1986. In many other countries, mandatory retirement still prevails. Regardless of whether mandated or voluntary, retirement is likely to be in the minds of many STC readers. There are many possibilities of how to remain active in science in retirement. Here we share our individual experiences hoping that they might be useful for some of our readers.
When I retired from Tufts University and closed my lab in 2006, I was quite aware that I wanted to write about microbiological topics. However, I had to face the fact was that there were very few venues to which one could submit articles with some frequency. Talking with Chris Condayan of the ASM staff, he told me that they were interested in launching a blog. I asked, what is that and how do you spell it? Once he explained, I decided to give it a try. He soon came up with a happy title, Small Things Considered. I decided that I would emphasize stories from the microbial word that were unusual, not readily visible, largely unknown, or neglected. Soon, I was joined by a number of exceptionally gifted collaborators, who have kept the blog going for the last 15 years.
So, I am "still in science," in fact, on a daily basis. I routinely scan the table of contents of the journals, but in a peculiar way. I, for one, do not look for what is "important" but what is "blogworthy." Leave it to me to define that. But by any reasonable criterion, I can think of myself as a participant in that vast and splendid undertaking we call science. Lucky me.
I was very lucky to be chosen by Elio as his first faculty appointment at Tufts in 1972. After many years of teaching graduate, medical and dental students, as well as training PhD students and postdocs, I retired in 2014. The reason was that the medical course in microbiology that I was directing was cut by 50% by a new dean of medical education who didn't think that the students need understand how bacteria and viruses grow and cause disease via gene expression, mutations or other scientific aspects. If I refused to direct or teach the new form of our course, I felt it was inappropriate to continue getting paid by the school. But I kept my lab open and continued to serve on graduate students' advisory committees for several years. In 2014 our lab had about 8 workers and we maintained an adequate amount of NIH grant support for 6 more years. In 2020, my last main grant ended, one week after the school was closed because of the COVID crisis. Since then, I have been the only person working in my lab but we still have some NIH money from a grant shared with my next-door neighbor, Carol Kumamoto. My lab has worked on Clostridioides difficile since 1996. Because of the reduced amount of grant funds, I donated most of the lab to Boris Belitsky, who had been my postdoc in in the 1990's, and Shumin Tan, a new faculty member. The existing grant will end in March 2022, and I will stop doing research in my lab completely. But I will keep my office open and continue to attend lab meetings and seminars. Also, I have a second job. Two colleagues and I created ExArca Pharmaceuticals in 2016 and, with funding from NIH, made novel chemicals that block C. diff. infection in mice. We used all the money for research (not for our salaries) and are hoping to obtain additional funding in the future.
There were many reasons that resulted in my retiring relatively "early," at least in terms of most of my colleagues. There was the extensive travel involved in my personal life. There was the fact I could afford to retire; my advanced financial planning had been sound. And there was the more "philosophical" reason that, as I saw the number of scientists grow exponentially, the closing of my lab would be my little grain of sand contribution towards achieving a more sustainable growth rate.
My approach was to slowly transition into retirement and learn microbiology more broadly than my years as head of a research lab had allowed. By the time my retirement went into effect at the end of 2017, I was already involved in science in many ways beyond the running of the lab. I started the planning in 2013 when I submitted (and was awarded) what I knew would be my last grant proposal. I downsized the group slowly by accepting fewer people. Thus, I knew years in advance when the Kolter Lab would close. I had always wanted to increase my participation in science communication to the public and was particularly fortunate that Scott Chimileski joined the lab in 2015. Between 2015 and 2017, we worked together on the book Life at the Edge of Sight and two exhibitions at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. And it was in 2016 that I received Elio's phone call inviting me to join STC. Thus, I never felt a "jolt" when the lab closed. Exploring new aspects of the living world from the perspective not of a head of a grant-funded lab but of a "freelance observer," without constraints, has been a marvelous and eye-opening experience. When thinking about new topics to explore, it's simply my curiosity that leads me. How to communicate that newly gained knowledge is a daily challenge. And though at times the challenge is tough, I love it.
Frontispiece photo credit Roberto Kolter