Bruce Alberts: He Has Science in His Soul

Patricia Yollin on October 28, 2011
Bruce Alberts greets President Barack Obama.

UCSF Professor Emeritus Bruce Alberts greets President Barack Obama, who named him a United States Science Envoy in 2009, a post he holds today along with serving as Editor-in-Chief of Science and principal investigator of the Bay Area Science Festival.

UCSF biochemist Bruce Alberts went to his 55th high school reunion recently and felt like a bit of a mutant.

“A lot of people my age are playing golf,” said the 73-year-old Chicago native. “I haven’t played golf since I was 18.”

He’s been busy doing other things instead. Just for starters, Alberts, PhD, is editor-in-chief of Science magazine, a U.S. science envoy, professor emeritus and former chair of the UCSF Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. He is past president for 12 years of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the original authors of Molecular Biology of the Cell, an acclaimed textbook now in its fifth edition.

And he is co-founder of the Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP), a 24-year-old collaboration between UCSF and the San Francisco Unified School District to support quality science education for K-12 students. It is one of the most successful and longest-running community outreach projects at UCSF.

These days Alberts is expanding upon his commitment to community as the primary champion of the first-ever Bay Area Science Festival, which gives people more than 100 opportunities to learn about the wonders and advances in science and technology that have made the region an international center for innovation.

Home to the birthplace of biotechnology, UCSF is the lead institution for the first-ever Bay Area Science Festival, which will include lectures  — featuring best-selling authors and UCSF’s leading scientists — debates, concerts, exhibitions, plays and workshops in an unprecedented undertaking that brings together top scientific, academic, corporate and nonprofit institutions.

“We’re trying to demonstrate to the citizens of the Bay Area what science is like, so that they and their kids appreciate that there are great things to do out there,” Alberts said. “Hopefully, many more people will see science as something they want to learn more about and participate in.”

Bruce Alberts, PhD

Bruce Alberts, PhD. Photo by Tom Kochel.

San Francisco was one of four cities in the country to receive a National Science Foundation grant to produce a science festival this year. The others are Philadelphia, San Diego and Cambridge, Mass.

“I volunteered to be the principal investigator for the Bay Area,” Alberts said. “I was very enthusiastic and I helped line up people at UCSF and elsewhere. I hope this leads to something like National Science Week in England, where every place in the country is doing something.”

Uncovering the World of Knowledge

Many Bay Area Science Festival offerings will feature experiments or interactive, hands-on activities designed to get children interested in science at an early age — a mission that Alberts has pursued relentlessly for decades.

“You have to expose them to something besides textbooks,” he said. “Kids can get all excited about investigating the world, but we don’t give them those opportunities in school. Science is defined as something onerous, a task of memorization.”

For a long time, that’s how school was for Alberts, who was born in Chicago but at age 2 moved to the suburbs with his family and grew up in Glencoe. His mother had been a chemistry teacher and his father was a mechanical engineer who later became a patent attorney and kept models of “very complicated machines with levers and knobs” in his office.

The only things Alberts can remember about his science classes are the special projects he did, which he said later influenced his attitude about education. In seventh grade, he had to give a report on how something worked. He chose television. As a freshman at the highly regarded New Trier High School in Winnetka, he did a report on spectroscopy, which took him to the Chicago Public Library.

“I had no idea there was this huge range of knowledge out there,” Alberts said. “When you look at something in a school textbook, it’s very simple. And it’s misleading as far as what we know about the world. Getting into something in depth is completely different, and I so remember that experience as being an enormous eye-opener — what the world of knowledge was like, compared to what school was like.”

In high school, Alberts had the same homeroom teacher for four years, and he taught chemistry. “We were always surrounded by things you’d never be surrounded by today, like fuming nitric acid and sulfuric acid,” he said. “I thought chemistry was fascinating.”

At Back to School Night one year, where parents talked about professions, Alberts looked for ones that used chemistry. The closest he could come was a doctor who discussed the relationship between medicine and science and a chemical engineer.

“That chemical engineer talked about the mass processing of things with big pipes,” Alberts recalled. “I still remember some of the slides. Based on that limited amount of knowledge, I thought I’d be a doctor and use science in medicine. I had no real conception that science was a profession you could get paid for. I don’t think kids are so naive today.”

He didn’t even take biology in high school because the classes were full by the time he got around to signing up.

“I’ve always been disorganized,” Alberts said. “I still am. You should see my office. I took amateur radio instead. It’s just as well. A lot of high school biology is not that interesting, and maybe I would have decided against doing science.”

As a pre-med student at Harvard University, he enrolled in a lot of science classes, many of them “pretty dull.” One chemistry class was so boring that he petitioned to get out of it, and ended up working in a real research laboratory instead in spring of his junior year. Alberts described it as a “breakthrough.” He spent the summer in the lab, too, and realized the many possibilities for a scientific career.

“I was very lucky,” he said. “I got very exciting results. I had two publications by the time I was a senior. It was very misleading. I thought science was easy. I never applied to medical school and I went on to get a PhD instead. Parents always want you to be an M.D. so that you can take care of them. My father was quite disappointed.”

Shaping a Superstar of Science

Alberts’ early success led to a devastating setback several years later, when he was working in the lab of Paul Doty at Harvard and finishing an “enormously ambitious” thesis on DNA replication. He just needed to pass his oral exam in order to get his doctorate in biophysics before heading off to a postdoctoral year in Geneva with his wife and 1-year-old daughter. They already had their plane tickets and their apartment had been rented to the next tenant. That’s how confident the young doctoral candidate was.

Bruce Alberts co-founded UCSF Science & Health Education Program in 1987.

Bruce Alberts, who co-founded UCSF Science & Health Education Program in 1987, is seen here working at a public elementary school in San Francisco.

But Alberts failed. “No one in recent memory had failed at this late stage,” he wrote in an article published in Nature in October 2004. “... This was, of course, a great embarrassment and a shock to my ego. … In retrospect, the shock of having my PhD thesis rejected in 1965 proved to be a critical step in shaping me as a scientist, because it forced me to recognize the central importance of the strategy that underlies any major scientific quest.”

He still feels that way today. “I talk about this with students,” Alberts said. “I emphasize the fact that failure happens to everybody. The important thing is that we learn from our failures. And I make the point that I never learned from my successes.”

Alberts spent a month rethinking whether he could really be a scientist. After six more months of work, he received his PhD and embarked on a career that has turned him into a superstar of science. While serving two six-year terms as president of the National Academy of Sciences, he helped develop the first national science curriculum standards for K-12 education and to establish the InterAcademy Council, which provides scientific advice to the world.

Alberts has co-authored 160 scientific publications. He is on the advisory board of more than two dozen nonprofits and has been given 16 honorary degrees and many awards, including the American Cancer Society’s Lifetime Research Professorship in 1980 and the UCSF Medal in 1994. On Nov. 3, he’ll receive another one: the Pantheon Biotechnology Educator DiNA Award from BayBio, a regional biotech trade group in South San Francisco.

Good-humored and self-deprecating, Alberts takes his work seriously but not himself. In a portrait at the National Academy of Sciences, unveiled when he departed in 2005, he is wearing a tied studded with yellow pie faces displaying a variety of moods.

He came to UCSF as a professor and vice chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in 1976 after a decade at Princeton University. Alberts was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978 and became chair of the department in 1985.

He lives in the Forest Hill neighborhood of the city with Betty Alberts, his wife of 51 years. They have three children, a foster child and seven grandchildren — the oldest just started college and is interested in molecular cell biology. One son is an emergency room doctor, the other is a computational biologist and their daughter is a high school science teacher.

All the children and grandchildren attended public schools in San Francisco. Their experiences helped create Alberts’ abiding passion for educating children about science and math as early as age 5.

“They had no science until they got to middle school,” he said. “And I was astounded that science was one of three options, besides shop or band. But at the time I was so busy. You look at the textbooks and they seem reasonable. You don’t actually read a chapter and discover it’s hopelessly superficial and not clear. I started to pay attention to education, and the kinds of things the Bay Area Science Festival represents, when my wife was very active in the PTA.”

Betty Alberts eventually became president of the San Francisco PTA and regularly attended school board meetings, which were broadcast on the radio. “She was always speaking and I had to listen,” her husband said. “I became aware that the schools were like a Third World country surrounded by First World institutions like UCSF, and that it would be enormously easy for us to help them.”

That idea led to the formation of the Science & Health Education Partnership, which he co-founded with David Ramsay, former UCSF vice chancellor for academic affairs, in 1987. Since then, Alberts has worked tirelessly to get science education redefined and have it actually happen in colleges and K-12 school systems.

“I certainly have not succeeded,” he said.

Understanding How Science Works

A study released this week by the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley and SRI International found few opportunities for science learning in California elementary schools. Ironically, Alberts said, parents value literacy but don’t realize that science education increases children’s reading and writing skills, and “is a terrific way of getting kids to be literate.”

Bruce Alberts and Vice Chancellor Keith Yamamoto review a student's work.

Chanelle Dorton, left, a student from Thurgood Marshall High School and an intern with the Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP)nprogram, explains her Alzheimer's research to Bruce Alberts and Keith Yamamoto, PhD, vice chancellor for research, at the celebration of the 2011 SEP High School Summer Internship Program. Photo by Susan Merrell.

Beyond that, he said, lack of scientific training has contributed to the country’s current political gridlock and the credence given to beliefs that link vaccines to autism or insist that President Obama was not born in the United States.

“If you don’t understand how science works, you don’t understand why you should go with a scientific consensus — because it’s right 99.9 percent of the time,” Alberts said. “If we’re betting on our future about global warming, you’d take those odds any day if you’re going to Las Vegas. And it’s gotten worse with our new communications capabilities. People didn’t used to be bombarded with all this misleading information, and now it’s everywhere.

“As long as we have a population that’s not good at discriminating — and untrained in a demand for evidence, rational problem-solving and insistence on something making sense — we’re going to have the kind of politics we have. It’s really degenerated. We have a democracy where people can’t distinguish between truth and bunk. If we do science education right, we should connect it to the broader issues of society, instead of just having kids learn what are the 30 kinds of whales, or dinosaurs, or whatever.”

The whole predicament makes Alberts even more determined. Science has put out three special issues on education since he took over in March 2008. He’d like to see science advocates, with “science in their souls,” permanently serving in school districts and connecting them to the best curricula and scientific resources such as, in the case of San Francisco, the California Academy of Science, the Exploratorium and places like that. He also dreams of having some members of Congress go to China for two weeks to see how one of the world’s scientific powerhouses has invested in science and technology.

“They would think very differently about the United States afterward,” Alberts said. “We have our heads in the sand. We’ve always been the winner. We’re overconfident. People in Washington just want to get themselves elected, and they don’t seem to care that the country is being ruined while they’re doing this.”

In fall 2009, after Alberts became one of President Obama’s first three science envoys to Muslim countries, the biochemist decided to retire from UCSF because traveling to Indonesia and continuing as editor of Science were a little too time-consuming. However, he is ensconced at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus and his ties to the University remain strong.

“They give me an office and they still put me on committees,” Alberts said.

He doesn’t plan to take up golf again until he’s “useless” for everything else. “I used to do a lot of backpacking and canoeing with the kids,” he said. “I’d like to have time for some of that stuff. And I like reading nonfiction books. But most of my free time is spent with email, with overdue things I’ve promised to do or to send somebody. It’s getting worse. I’ve got to change my lifestyle somehow.”

But, for now, Alberts is focusing on changing the world of science.

“There’s a huge amount of work left to be done,” he said. “And I enjoy making a difference.”