The word sabbatical could conjure up all sorts of envy in non-academics who may hear the term and think only of “paid time off.” However, this “time away” is anything but “time off.” Often investigators use their sabbaticals to learn new cutting-edge technologies, move their research toward a new direction, or diminish distraction to finish a book, scholarly papers, or a complicated clinical trial protocol. For one Penn Medicine researcher who has changed heart health for millions worldwide by explaining the benefits of low-dose aspirin and has taken on Big Pharma by exposing the dangers of certain anti-inflammatory medications, a sabbatical is a source of renewal.
Garret FitzGerald, MD, FRS, director of the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics (ITMAT) at Penn, still finds it valuable to have “his assumptions challenged” by seeking new experiences outside his home institution. While visiting Penn during his third sabbatical at Calico, a San Francisco-based firm focused on aging research and therapeutics, I sat down with FitzGerald to learn more about what his “time off” has given him.
Q. You have taken three sabbaticals at different stages in your career - in what way was each different from the other? The same?
A. The first was at Genentech in 1987; a year divided between Oxford University and the Genome Institute of the Novartis Foundation [GNF] in San Diego in 2002; and presently at Calico.
I went to Genentech to get firsthand experience with molecular biology. The second sabbatical was to understand the power and language of bioinformatics. And, at Calico I am focused on understanding the biology of senescence [when normal cells stop dividing]. My interest in biological clocks influenced this latest venture.
During each sabbatical I spent all or some of the time in a company and that provided a different perspective. For example, at Penn I see a paper and ask "Is that interesting?" At Calico, I also ask, "Is it useful?”
In each case it was at a time when resources at that company were considerable, emergent technologies were at hand, and there was no burning need to discover drugs, which meant that there was a great atmosphere of discovery which attracted outstanding scientists at every level. In the cases of Genentech and GNF, reality eventually intruded with the increasing influence of Roche and Novartis central [to shift company emphasis to the next phases of drug development]. I suspect the runway is longer at Calico due to the investment by Google, but ultimately here too, drug discovery and development will be necessary to guarantee sustainability.
Q. You mentioned that your years spent on sabbatical were the "most productive” of your career in terms of long-term impact. How so? How did this time differ from your time spent in the lab and teaching/mentoring?
A. Firstly, you have time to think and to read papers that are interesting and appealing but might be to the side of your focus at Penn, so you never get around to reading them. Such time for reflection lends value to your immediate plans, but also to strategic considerations with respect to both your career and your science. For example, I came up with the idea for ITMAT while I was on sabbatical at GNF. Similarly, I returned to Vanderbilt [University, where FitzGerald was a faculty member before coming to Penn] from Genentech and established a cell and molecular biology program in the large division of Clinical Pharmacology that I was just beginning to lead at the time.
Hopefully, this time I can catalyze new opportunities for Penn and Calico in Human Phenomic Science. [Human phenomics are the physical and biochemical traits of an individual that differ with genetics and environmental factors such as diet and behavior.]
Q. How did the professional and intellectual connections you made during your sabbaticals change the direction of your research?
A. I always went way out of my scientific comfort zone. A mistake, in my view, is to take a sabbatical in a lab that works in your own field of research. They are likely to politely respect your accomplishments, enjoy your company, and try to learn from you. For me, having decided a field is of potential relevance, I want to go to the best place where they will be well aware of my ignorance but are open to allowing me to learn. Out of this comes unexpected scientific opportunities.
The right sabbatical will remind you of how little you know, how much there is to learn, and that time is short. Besides being an intellectual recharge, in each case I have made new friends who have stayed close to me over the years. Ironically, the leadership at Calico includes many scientists from Genentech, some of whom were there with me almost 30 years ago.
As for the impact on my lab, yes the sabbaticals had a big impact.
After the first, we adopted molecular approaches to our work - a fundamental transformation. The second taught me how best to build informatics into our science. I hired statisticians and informaticists to work closely - physically and well as intellectually - with the biologists in our group. Over the years this has proven very successful, particularly with the leadership in ITMAT of [Director of Bioinformatics] Greg Grant. Now we speak, albeit still imperfectly, each other's language.
Finally, the experience with Calico will embolden and redirect the focus of our work on clocks. Already we have collaborative projects looking at how they work in various species, from naked mole rats to the human chronobiome.
Q. What advice would you give faculty members who are contemplating taking their first sabbatical?
A. I've read that only about 10 percent of faculty who are entitled to take sabbaticals actually exercise the option and that the most common reason for caution is the fear that their own lab will fall apart. On the contrary, I think it is a bit of a healthy stress test for your lab; it is an opportunity for leaders to emerge. Also, if you move to a different time zone, staying in touch with your lab while doing your "new" job is much easier. Given the current array of communication options and the ease of travel back for short visits, I think that fear can be addressed easily.
The important thing is to decide where you want to go and then pose the question. In the first two cases I persuaded them to take me. (I was the second external person to spend a sabbatical at Genentech.) Ironically, just before I was going to ask them, Calico asked me if I would be interested in spending time here.
Finally, a bonus is that it alerts you to the benefits of welcoming scientists on sabbatical into your own laboratory.
Q. You left Penn for each of your sabbaticals. I have heard of other faculty taking sabbaticals but staying put and using it as protected time for writing, for instance. What do you see as the range of types of sabbaticals?
A. For me a real bonus was to go elsewhere. Aside from the shock of a new scientific environment there is the cultural and social pleasure of displacement. Our kids came with us to San Francisco and still remember fondly the contrast from living in our house in suburban Nashville to an apartment in the Castro at the height of the AIDS crisis. It broadened their outlook in many ways and taught them the importance of compassion and social cohesion when a community is under siege. My wife Kate and I went alone to Oxford and San Diego; the kids were grown. It gave us time to relax together and to explore new surroundings. Each weekend we would avail ourselves of travel deals and head from Oxford, at cut price, to the best hotels in Europe. In San Diego we would finish the day by walking across the road to the beach with a glass of wine and try to see the "green flash" at sundown. This time, I bike across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito or watch the sundown in Half Moon Bay. It's difficult to have those experiences if you don't get out of town. As I already mentioned, a real pleasure is to have time to think, write, and read. However, this isn't incompatible with a change in location; rather, that can be your inspiration.
Follow FitzGerald and colleague Ian Blair, PhD, a professor of Systems Pharmacology & Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Superfund Research Program on their drive east toward home.