Jack D. Keene

Born: June 22, 1947 | Jacksonville, FL, US

Jack Keene was born in Florida. His father worked in early computers for the RAND Corporation, and the family moved numerous times. Keene entered University of California, Los Angeles, transferring to University of California, Riverside and majoring in biology. He entered University of Washington for a PhD in microbiology and immunology. During his postdoc at the National Institutes of Health he learned classical sequencing, scientific discipline, and high standards. As an assistant professorship at Duke University, he worked on negative-strand RNA virology until he won the Pew Scholars award. Keene obtained a patent on an autoimmune test kit, a patent he licensed to Duke and on which he consults. Upon becoming a Pew Scholar, Keene discovered RNA recognition motif leading to work on binding specificity. Finding the multibinding of specific sequences has led to Keene’s post-transcription theory and in turn to a coordination theory of RNA operons.  Keene gives his opinions on innate genius versus luck, careerism versus professionalism, and personal responsibility.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0416
No. of pages: 121
Minutes: 466

Interview Sessions

Arnold Thackray, Stephanie Morris and David J. Caruso
5 March 1989 and 23 and 25 April 2008
Ixtapa, Mexico and Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland

Abstract of Interview

Jack Keene was born in Florida, one of four children. His father worked in early computers for the RAND Corporation, and the family moved numerous times. Keene finished high school in Redlands, California, and entered University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), later transferring to University of California, Riverside. There he majored in biology, inspired and mentored by Carlton Bovell. Next he entered Helen Whiteley’s lab at the University of Washington for a PhD in microbiology and immunology. While in graduate school he married. During his postdoc in Robert Lazzarini’s lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) he learned classical sequencing, scientific discipline, and high standards. He loved the NIH, where he met many important scientists, had good funding, and found congenial the atmosphere at the NIH generally and in Lazzarini’s lab in particular. Keene accepted an assistant professorship at Duke University. There he worked on negative-strand RNA virology until he won the Pew Scholars award. Wolfgang Joklik, the chairman of Keene’s department, became a very good mentor and friend. Keene studied how RNA virus works in autoimmune patients, using antibodies to study virus-host interactions; then cell components; eventually cell proteins. The work has engendered five publications so far, with five more coming, dealing with RNA-binding proteins. Keene obtained a patent on an autoimmune test kit, a patent he licensed to Duke and on which he consults; and he shares the royalties with his lab. He says the Pew Scholars award brought him notoriety, more academic work, and funding he was able to save for a low point. In five or ten years Keene hopes to understand basic principles of development of the human organism from fertilization to death. In his second interview Jack Keene expands on his biographical information. He worked summers in Missouri at relatives’ farms; worked at the US Salinity Laboratory while he was in graduate school; played guitar and sang, but only privately; took up the American Civil War as a hobby. His wife is an artist; she worked at the Smithsonian Institution while Keene was at the NIH; they have two grown children and some grandchildren. Making an easy transition to an assistant professorship at Duke University and interested in what proteins interact with regulating regions, Keene sequenced vesicular stomatitis virus, which is associated with rabies, Ebola, and influenza. Wolfgang Joklik, the department chairman, became his mentor and good friend; he helped Keene obtain grants, including the Pew Scholars award, using which Keene discovered RNA recognition motif (RRM). This led to work on binding specificity. Finding the multibinding of specific sequences has led to Keene’s post-transcription theory and in turn to a coordination theory of RNA operons. Keene muses throughout the interview on a number of subjects. He found at least the first Pew meetings perhaps excessively luxurious, but he enjoyed the intellectual talk and the chance to get to know such famous scientists as Joshua Lederberg, Daniel Tosteson, Gerald Weissman. He discusses his own lab management; teaching students to write; evidence-based reasoning; funding’s outsized role in competition for students and for the rush to publish. He says that science cannot be proved, only disproved; that truth equals functional truth. While on the Pew Scholars Program advisory committee he looked for imagination and passion in applicants. For a while he was department chairman but had to delegate his chairman duties in order to teach and run his lab. In fact, two subsequent Pew Scholars came from his lab. A merger of departments created the Center for RNA Biology for him. Keene considers his discovery of the binding motif a major contribution to biochemistry. Having found the protein that regulates growth control messages, he switched to working in that area. Fen-Baio Gao, his student, got the protein to bind with brain RNAs; from that they discovered that translation activated RNAs into proteins, and this became the early core of the operon regulon model. Because this work was considered “odd,” it was hard to find funding, so he used some Pew money. Scott Tenenbaum, his postdoc, used microarrays for in vivo testing, a major turning point. Keene’s theory was hard to communicate and unpersuasive, but finally Keene got an in vivo hypothesis article published. The operon was discovered in mammals in Keene’s lab and later proved in yeast in Patrick Brown’s lab. Keene is now working on exosomes, microscopic particles that pass RNA operons among cells; this is a new direction, not yet credible, he says. Keene concludes his interview with more general musings. He points out that there have been no RNA operon publications in Science. He believes that the NIH should spread funding around among investigator-initiated projects, not give blocks of money to large but often-unsuccessful projects like development of an AIDS vaccine. He talks about science ethics and the public trust; who should decide funding; and a lack of science understanding among citizens. He says that guidelines, oversight, and interest are needed on the part of the National Science Foundation’s outreach requirements; his own project was rejected. For assigning value to scientists and their work he compares the European system with the American. Projects these days are often too big and have too many authors, so young scientists are not recognized. Keene gives his opinions on innate genius versus luck; careerism versus professionalism; personal responsibility; and the importance of morals in rearing children. Keene believes that his work is extremely important. He reiterates his belief that truth equals functional truth.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1969 University of California, Riverside AB Life Sciences
1974 University of Washington PhD Microbiology and Immunology

Professional Experience

National Institutes of Health

1974 to 1978
Staff Fellow, Molecular Genetics

Duke University Medical Center

1979 to 1984
Assistant Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology
1985 to 2008
Associate Professor, Division of Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology, Department of Medicine
1984 to 1988
Associate Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology
1988 to 1992
Professor, Microbiology and Immunology
1995 to 2003
Director of Basic Science Research, Comprehensive Cancer Center
1992 to 2002
James B. Duke Professor and Chairman, Department of Microbiology and Immunology
2002 to 2009
James B. Duke Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1981 to 1986

American Cancer Society, Faculty Research Award

1981 to 1984

Nanaline Duke Faculty Scholar

1985 to 1988

Arthritis Foundation, Devil’s Bag Award

1986 to 1990

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

2009

Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology

2009

James Buchanan Duke Distinguished Professorship

2009

Member of the Henry Kunkel Honorary Society

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born in Missouri. Father software engineer in early computers, for RAND Corporation; family moved often. Worked on family farms in summers. Redlands [California] High School.

College and Graduate School Years
3

Begins at UCLA; transfers to UC, Riverside. Molecular biology more revolutionary than chemistry or physics. Carlton Bovell’s inspiration and mentorship. Helen Whiteley’s microbiology lab at University of Washington for PhD. Whiteley’s personality, lab management. Neal Groman’s influence. Theodore Roszak’s philosophy. Marries.

Postdoc Years
7

Peter Vogt’s work in tumor viruses. Enters Robert Lazzarini’s virology lab at National Institutes of Health (NIH). Ample funding, collegial atmosphere at NIH; Lazzarini’s lab like family. RNA sequencing; learns classical sequencing from Martin Rosenberg. High standards, discipline, though not much independent work.

Becoming a Faculty Member
12

Accepts assistant professorship at Duke University. Wolfgang Joklik’s lab, management style, personality. Learning politics of science. Negative strand RNA virology until winning Pew award. Joklik good mentor and friend. NIH grants and several smaller grants. How RNA virus works in autoimmune patients. Publications. Patent on autoimmune test kit. Impact of Pew award. Future aspirations and goals.

Biographical Information
20

Parents’ background. Keene’s interests and hobbies. Good student. Enjoys science in school.

College and Graduate School Years
31

Bovell’s mentoring and inspiration. Science as quasi-religious search for truth. Wanted to be expert in one narrow area. Part-time work at US Salinity Laboratory. Helen Whiteley’s lab at University of Washington.

Postdoctoral Years
41

Robert Lazzarini’s lab at NIH. Hope to work on viruses and cancer. Loves NIH. Wife works at Smithsonian. First child born; balancing home and work lives. Lazzarini’s Italian warmth and assistance. Golden age of virology; gets to know many famous scientists at NIH.

First Job
46

Accepts assistant professorship at Duke University. Easy transition, with support from Wolfgang Joklik. Good students for lab. Interest in regulation. Joklik’s personality, chairmanship. Learning politics of science. Joklik’s help on Pew award application. Luxurious Pew meetings, collegiality. Getting to know famous scientists like Joshua Lederberg, Daniel Tosteson, Gerald Weissman. Intellectual talks. Results of Pew award money. Work on binding specificity. Tries to help younger scientists. Hands-off inspiration, but accessible. Designs but does not perform experiments. Teaching lab members to write.

Philosophical Observations
56

Science adversarial, like law court. Publication expectations and requirements. Labs’ competition for students. Judging quality of data; controls and repetition of experiments. Uncertainty in science. Position on journals’ editorial boards.

Current Work
67

Discovery of binding motif a major biochemical contribution. Work considered “odd.”  Pew Scholars Program advisory committee; looks for imagination, passion in applicants. Department chairman. Careerism versus professionalism. Two Pew Scholars from his lab. Merger of departments creates Center for RNA Biology. In vivo hypothesis article published. Operon discovered in mammals in Keene’s lab, proved in yeast in Patrick Brown’s lab. Work on exosomes.

More Philosophical Observations
87

Kinds of papers he reviews for journals. No RNA operon publications in Science. Tries to help writers; always begins with positive comments. NIH funding, specifically for AIDS. “War on science” a nod to lack of public’s understanding of science. Also indicates competition among scientists and schools for funding. Who should decide funding. Science ethics and public trust. Importance of science to human progress. “Romantic” period of science ending and “academic” period beginning. National Science Foundation (NSF) outreach requirements. Guidelines, oversight, interest needed on part of NSF. Value of internet in dispute. Assigning value to scientists and their work. European system compared with American. Careerism versus professionalism; personal responsibility. Frustration with system. Morals and child-rearing. Evaluation of his own work.

Index
119

About the Interviewer

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

David J. Caruso

David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and editor for the Oral History Review. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds an annual training institute that focuses on conducting interviews with scientists and engineers, he consults on various oral history projects, like at the San Diego Technology Archives, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.  His current research interests are the discipline formation of biomedical science in 20th-century America and the organizational structures that have contributed to such formation.

Stephanie Morris