Corey Cain said he and his fellow grad students were “bouncing off the walls” when they learned their book review of two systems biology texts was going to be published in “Science.” The journal represents the pinnacle of achievement for many researchers, and the group of graduate students had accomplished something almost unheard-of in getting an uninvited review accepted for publication.
But when the initial adrenaline wore off, said coauthor Eric Lau, they all realized their publication represented much more than a byline.
“The real accomplishment was getting together and writing the thing,” he said. “Here we had all these young researchers in a new field, trying to collaborate, give input and expand their backgrounds. It was a warm-up to the rest of our careers, sharing viewpoints based on our different experiences.”
“The review turned out to be a metaphor for the field of systems biology as a whole,” said Professor Mike Dawson, who advised the group in a year-long graduate course along with professors Marcos Garcia-Ojeda and Jennifer O. Manilay. “Unexpected products came about from the interactions of a diverse group. Without any one of these students, the process wouldn’t have been the same.”
Systems biology is an integrative field bringing together ideas and techniques from many subdisciplines. The UC Merced student reviewers include physiologists Julie Phillips and Debye Conte, stem cell biologists Lau and Cain, immunologist Larry Johnson, ecologist and evolutionary biologist Holly Swift, biochemist Soledad Rogers, taxonomist Lisa Gomez Daglio and bioengineer Sarah Stolberg.
Their different backgrounds meant they didn’t always see eye to eye. They read the two books chapter by chapter and discussed each one – sometimes heatedly.
“It’s a fond memory now,” said Phillips. “In the midst of it, it was a little more painful. It’s easier to see now how the growing pains were worthwhile.”
Rogers agreed. “Having an opponent opened up my thinking,” she said. “Hearing different perspectives helped me understand and think more broadly about my work.”
Dawson called the discussion process a productive “tension of ideas.”
The results have been satisfying. One professor from another UC campus told Cain he’d never previously considered himself a fan of any book review, but this one deserved special praise. Former colleagues from out of state have contacted Swift with their congratulations. The students say all their parents have something new to stick up on the fridge.
And, of course, there’s that nice line on the CV.