FOCUS in Sound - George Langford

LIVE AT the Burroughs Wellcome Fund

May 20, 2015

INTRODUCTION: Welcome to Focus In Sound, the podcast series from the FOCUS newsletter published by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.  I’m your host, science writer Ernie Hood.

On this edition of Focus In Sound, we bring you a special treat.  In May 2015, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund celebrated its 60th anniversary with a series of events at the Fund’s headquarters in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.  On May 20th, the Fund welcomed approximately 100 guests to a dinner held out in the building’s courtyard.  After that dinner, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. George Langford from Syracuse University, who has been a member of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Board since 2008.

We were outdoors, so you’ll hear the gentle sounds of the nearby fountain, some resident birds, and at one point, some very vocal bullfrogs make their presence known. 

We hope you enjoy this compelling interview with George Langford…

Ernie Hood: Let me tell you just a little bit about Dr. George Langford.

He is a native North Carolinian, and he grew up in a tiny northeastern North Carolina town called Potecasi, which I went to great pains to be able to pronounce that correctly, not far from Roanoke Rapids, which you’re probably familiar with.  He joined the Burroughs Wellcome Fund board in February 2008.

Until recently, George was the dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Distinguished Professor of Biology at Syracuse University.  He is now on sabbatical, and will be resuming his teaching duties…I guess, in the fall?

George Langford: In the fall.

EH: Okay, very good. George is a cell biologist and neuroscientist, and in doing so he studies cellular mechanisms of learning and memory. His research program seeks to understand how the brain remembers and how that process is impaired by Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.  In 1998, he was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the National Science Board (NSB), the governing board of the National Science Foundation, to advise the president and Congress on national science policy. He served on the NSB from 1998 to 2004.  Please join me in welcoming Dr. George Langford.

George, as I mentioned in my introduction, you were born and raised right here in North Carolina.  How did that upbringing shape your later career and later life in general?

GL: Wow, a great question to start, but before I answer, let me just say what a wonderful opportunity this is to participate in the 60th anniversary celebration of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and I really thank Dr. Burris for inviting me to be in the spotlight tonight, and to share some ideas with you about my background and perspective on science. 

So, yes, I have very deep roots in North Carolina.  I’m very, very proud of the fact that I was born in Northampton County in this very, very small town of Potecasi, and I went to elementary school there, I went to high school in the neighboring town of Rich Square, and then I stayed in the state to go to undergraduate school at Fayetteville State University, here in North Carolina.  So I really have had very strong roots in this state.

We actually traced my family history a little bit, and so I just wanted to tell you a little bit about just how deep the roots are in North Carolina.  My great-great grandfather was born in 1805.  At that time it was slavery, and he was born a slave.  We don’t know very much about his parents, but we do know that he learned how to read and write.  And this is quite extraordinary, because as you know, during the period of slavery, it was against the law to teach a slave how to read and write.  So we don’t know whether he did this through his own, self-taught mechanism, or whether he was actually taught by someone else.  But what was extraordinary is that he was able, even though he couldn’t teach his own children how to read and write, he was hired by the local white farmers to tutor their kids.  He earned enough money to actually buy his freedom, so in 1850, he was a free man.  And after he bought his freedom he was able to buy the freedom of his wife and his children, and he purchased land, and actually donated plots to the little community where I grew up to build a church and a school.  So that’s the school and the church that I went to, five generations in that little, small town.  And the other extraordinary thing about this is that he, having bought his freedom in 1850, it was 15 years before the end of the Civil War, so it gave him a head start in learning how to be a free man, to gather resources, and to develop a social network to exist when slavery was over.  So that head start allowed him to do a lot of wonderful things in the town.  Because you know after the war, there was a very short period of time of Reconstruction, and at the end of that, segregation started, the Jim Crow laws, and so it was very difficult to acquire resources after that. 

So, very deep roots here in the state, more than five generations of us in that small town in Northampton County. 

EH: Well that’s just a fascinating history. Yourself, as a young African-American growing up in the Jim Crow era, what types of obstacles did you face growing up, and how did you deal with those types of barriers?

GL: Well, there were obstacles, I mean, it was a period of segregation, and so, we hear stories today after the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, of parents who say, black parents who say, we have to tell our children how they should behave if they were ever encountered the police, you know, it’s hands up, don’t say anything to provoke that would start a bad situation. 

Well, growing up in the South at that time, you had to be careful with every white person that you ran into.  Your parents really had to tell you that you must always make sure that you don’t say something or do something that could provoke a bad accident.  So I was totally cocooned in my village.  My parents didn’t really allow me to have a lot of interactions outside of the community, because of that potential. 

And this was a difficult thing for me as a teenager.  I wanted to do odd jobs, like mow lawns, and do other things, but because of the fear that someone would say something inappropriate or do things that would rob one of one’s own self-esteem, parents were very shy about allowing kids to do it.  And so I didn’t have the spending change to buy my favorite shirt or to go to the movies or do the things that other teenagers wanted to do.  So that was definitely one of those, the drawbacks of growing up in that era of segregation. 

But there were other kinds of barriers as well.  It was difficult as we grew up, going off to college.  We participated in a lot of the protest marches and sit-ins, and so those were additional things that we fought against, to make sure that we had the opportunities that others in this country had.

EH: Sure.  Well the civil rights movement was, I assume, at its height about when you were an undergraduate…

GL: That’s absolutely true, I mean, I was there in the Sixties when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  I was a sophomore in high school.  The Bill of Rights [Civil Rights Bill] was passed during the time when I was in college, and it was a time that we participated very actively in the protest movement.  Jesse Jackson at the time was a student at A&T University, and of course he was sort of the leader of many of the sit-ins and the demonstrations in Greensboro, North Carolina.  So when I got to college, we sort of followed that pattern.  But there was an interesting thing that happened.  In my senior year I was elected president of the student government.  And the student government came up with this interesting idea to write to General Westmoreland, who was in charge of the troops in Vietnam, to say that the soldiers who – the armed forces were integrated at this time, but when soldiers returned to Fort Bragg, which is located right there next to Fayetteville, they were not able, the black soldiers were not able to go to the restaurants and the theater and the shops in downtown Fayetteville.  So the idea was to write to General Westmoreland and to implore him to help us to say that, if the armed forces were integrated, these soldiers should have the right to participate in those activities when they got back into this country.  Never thought that I would get a response from General Westmoreland, but within a very short period of time he wrote back and informed us that he in fact had written a letter to the mayor of Fayetteville to say that if those shops were not integrated, then not only the black but the white soldiers would be off-limits to Fayetteville.  And within 18 months, Fayetteville was integrated.  So we didn’t have the long period of time that a lot of the other towns in North Carolina took to achieve integration. 

EH: I see.  Well that’s a wonderful story, thanks for sharing that. 

George, you exhibited a proclivity for science and mathematics from a very early age…how did you end up specializing in cell biology?

GL: I was always interested in science, and I think growing up in North Carolina on a farm, was sort of the trigger for me that I really wanted to understand nature.  And so science was a great interest, and I had the good fortune of having great teachers in high school, who really directed me toward the sciences.  We didn’t have very good facilities, but we had teachers.  Teaching at that time was a great profession, because it was one the few professions that blacks could actually pursue.  And so we really had very, very bright individuals who were serving as our teachers.  So they really encouraged me to pursue science.  And after I graduated from college, my professors encouraged me to continue to go to graduate school.  And I happened to be at the Illinois Institute of Technology when they hired an eminent cell biologist to build a cell biology program at IIT, and it was Teru Hayashi, a long-standing member of the Columbia faculty who came to IIT and of course has a long-standing relationship with the Marine Biological Laboratory.  And it was really Tay Hayashi who pointed me in the direction of cell biology.  It was an emerging field at the time.  The American Society of Cell Biology was started in 1960, and I was there in the late 60s, in ’66 through ’68, when Tay Hayashi came.  So it was really the field to go into, it was very, very exciting at the time.  So I owe that to my dear friend, Tay Hayashi. 

EH: Indeed.  Well, here we’d like to hear a little bit more about your educational background.  As you’ve mentioned, you attended Fayetteville State University as an undergraduate, and did your graduate studies toward your MS and PhD at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and you did your postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania.  Those would seem to be very different institutions.  How did that evolve in that direction?

GL: They were very different institutions.  Again, I feel very fortunate to have had the HPCU experience, the historically black university and college experience.  The experience there was very affirming.  It was a warm experience of a faculty who cared dearly about the students and provided a lot of guidance and support.  So when I graduated, the question was where would I go to graduate school?  And if I were to continue on the normal path of where blacks tended to go for graduate training, it would have been Atlanta University in Atlanta, or Howard University, but luckily, because of the civil rights movement, historically white institutions were beginning to accept black students in their graduate programs.  So I was part of that wave of students who were the first to attend majority-white institutions.  And so going from this very affirming experience at Fayetteville to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where there were actually no supports for minority students at the time.  There was no Office of Multicultural Affairs, there was no Director of Equity and Inclusion, there were no advisors; you were just there.  It was sink or swim.  So it was a very, very difficult transition.  And there were no other black students in my class.  So it turns out I built a social network with students from Nigeria and Kenya and Ethiopia, so that was the way I sort of got through it socially.  But then I had professors like Teru Hayashi, who was very, very supportive. 

And then when I got to Penn for the postdoc, this was another big shock, because I was going from, IIT is a wonderful place known for its architecture and engineering, but did not have a high profile in biology, to Penn, that was this very elite, very high intensity, very competitive research institution in biology.  And so there, it was a difficult transition, because … we now have a term for this.  It’s called microagression.  The graduate students and the postdocs were a little bit concerned about why I was there.  I had gotten an NIH postdoctoral fellowship, but they were concerned about, was I really a postdoc or a trainee?  And where did I actually do my undergraduate work?  And I would say “Fayetteville State,” and they’d say, “Well, I’ve never heard of that.”  So we know about these things now.  There are terms when you are reminded that you belong to a marginalized group; there are kinds of questions that come out.  So it was a challenging time, but again, you have good mentors.  I had a great postdoctoral mentor, and I began going to the Marine Biological Laboratory at the time, which is also a terrific place for me, and I had great support during that period. 

EH: I see. Since 1973, you’ve been following a career path in academia, as a researcher, teacher, and ultimately, a faculty administrator, serving at Howard, UMass, UNC-Chapel Hill, Dartmouth, UMass Amherst, and since 2008 at Syracuse, and welcome to the ACC, by the way.  How has that particular track evolved?  It sounds like you have accumulated a wide variety of experiences through the years…

GL: It has been a lot of different institutions, and when I finished my postdoc at Penn, I talked to my professor Shinya Inoue about my first faculty position, and what I realized is that after that experience, even though it was terrific scientifically, it was very difficult emotionally.  And so I needed time to be at a place that would be supportive, and would allow a period of recovery, because I still wanted to pursue an academic research career, but I knew that it wasn’t going to happen immediately.  So I took the jobs at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and then at Howard.  Both smaller institutions, less competitive, but a place where it provided some emotional support and a time to sort of reflect and think about the next phase of my career.  So I felt I was ready when the opportunity at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine came along, so I was able to pursue that opportunity, and it was one of the great phases of my career, to be on the faculty in the Department of Physiology at UNC Medical School. 

And then, I was very happy there, my kids grew up here in North Carolina, so they sort of feel that this is home.  I wasn’t looking for a place to move, but Dartmouth College had established and endowed a professorship to honor the memory of Ernest Everett Just, and Just was one of those most distinguished African-American scientists of the early 20th century, and I thought it would be a tremendous honor to be the first holder of the Ernest Everett Just professorship.  So that was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down, so I moved to Dartmouth to take on that position. 

And so as you mentioned in the introduction, I was actually invited and appointed to the National Science Board by President Clinton.  The National Science Board is the governing board of the National Science Foundation, and that was an extraordinary experience, because it gave me an opportunity to see science broadly across all of the disciplines of science.  And it was time in which there was a strong interest in integrating sciences, building interdisciplinary programs.  So biology was going through the period of really integrating the quantitative computational and the physical sciences with the biological sciences.  Because of that experience, I felt that I wanted to broaden beyond my own individual research program to try to build interdisciplinary programs.  And so I decided that I would be interested in taking an administrative position as dean of a college to do that, and so I transitioned into the deanship at UMass Amherst and then now at Syracuse University.  So it was because of wanting to build something broader than individual research program. 

EH: Speaking of your individual research program, though, we can’t let the opportunity pass by without getting a little taste of the science.  I know this is asking a lot, but could you kind of give us a thumbnail sketch of your scientific accomplishments as a cell biologist and neuroscientist?

GL: I really can’t say enough about the value of the Marine Biological Laboratory to my scientific career.  I really learned to be a scientist at the MBL. I didn’t really learn that in graduate school.  I didn’t learn that as a postdoc.  It was really when I got to the MBL, and I saw the kind of atmosphere there, the ability to talk to scientists, to see how they think about designing experiments and how they carry out their experiments in the laboratory.  This was really a unique experience, and so I started going to the MBL in ’72 and I continued there as a summer investigator until I transitioned into administration.  So it was at the MBL that I really made my most important discovery. 

Two of my major mentors, my postdoctoral mentor Shinya Inoue and Robert Allen, simultaneously developed the technique of video microscopy.  And this was a revolution in cell biology, because it permitted us to actually detect structures that were below the resolution of the light microscope.  And there are preparations at the MBL, the squid giant axon, for example, that we used to actually first isolate the molecular motor kinesin, which is a motor that carries vesicles on microtubules.  And at the time, there was a lot of new work being done on myosin motors that were thought also to be vesicle motors, but no one had ever visualized vesicles moving on actin filaments in animal cells.  And so it was using the technique that Robert Allen had developed to visualize, using the squid giant axon, vesicles moving on actin filaments.  So we were actually the first laboratory to discover the actin-dependent movement of vesicles.  It was known that they move on microtubules, but we showed that they also move on actin filaments.  And so we developed this dual filament transport model in which vesicles move over long distances on microtubules and they transition to move short distances on actin filaments, and that was because of the ability to collaborate with scientists.  I collaborated with scientists from Germany as well with Bob Allen at the MBL, and the preparation, the squid giant axon, and the video microscopy that was developed right there, that allowed that discovery to take place. 

EH: It sounds like you had a lot of fun at Woods Hole.

GL: It’s a great place, it’s a great place.

EH: George, in your career, you have been both a highly effective advocate for cell biology and a role model and activist for diversity in science…What kind of advice would you have for young people today, particularly young people of color, who might be considering a career in the sciences today?

GL: I have always worked to develop programs to support underrepresented minorities in science, and I’ve done that at every institution that I’ve worked at.  There are things that I would say to students today.  It’s very interesting that fifty years later, we still have to have programs designed to really increase participation of underrepresented minorities in science.  So in many ways it’s disappointing that we still have to do this, but on the other hand, there is a body of literature now that comes out of the social sciences and the humanities that helps us to understand the kinds of issues that we need students to understand.  So if I were able to help students, I would try to introduce them to this interesting literature that helps them to overcome barriers in the sciences.  So for example, I mentioned already microagression.  I think it’s just important for students to understand how that operates in the environment in which they would exist. 

There’s also stereotype threat.  This is another very, very important concept to understand for minority students, because it really does rob them of their cognitive abilities to focus on their research, because they are constantly worrying about, am I going to confirm for someone the fact that I am not able to perform well.  So that threat of confirming someone’s stereotype takes away your cognitive capacity to do your best in school.  So students have to understand that, and there are strategies that you can work around that.  So there’s a whole list of these.  Implicit bias, which operates, we know that it operates when grants are reviewed, for example, at the NIH.  There’s been studies that have shown that individuals with a name that’s recognized as African-American tend to get a lower score than someone who has a name that is recognized as white.  So there’s implicit bias that goes on.  Knowing these kinds of things I think can help students, and at least we should make sure that institutions know about these, so that they can be better prepared to support minority students.

EH: I see. Well, George, last question, and I think our cheering section here is glad to know that…Tell us about your involvement with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund itself – you’ve been a member of the Board of Directors since 2008.  What has that experience been like for you?

GL: This is one of the greatest experiences, being a part of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.  So before I became a member of the Board, I actually served on one of the Scientific Advisory Committees, for what was the CABS program (Career Awards in the Biomedical Sciences), that is now CAMS (Career Awards for Medical Scientists), and that experience of working with the Foundation, of really understanding the high standards, the high quality of the individuals that are supported, and its commitment to the kids of North Carolina, that I care about dearly, and diversity, were all things that made it just a wonderful organization to be a part of.  So it was a thrill when I received the phone call to ask if I would serve on the Board.  I was delighted to do that.  I was delighted to serve as Chair of the Board for a couple of years before Dyann (Wirth) took over, and in that process, we have just established a new program.  It’s in its third year, the Postdoctoral Enrichment Program, which we’ve really set up to increase the support for postdocs, to enrich their experience so that they are more competitive for awards, research grants, and for faculty positions.  And so it’s just great being part of an organization that has those kinds of values, and it’s been wonderful for me. 

EH: Well George, thanks so much, and thanks for sharing so much of your life story with us as well. 

GL: Thank you.

Applause…hold for several seconds, fade under for close.

EH: We hope you’ve enjoyed this special edition of the FOCUS In Sound podcast.  Until next time, this is Ernie Hood.  Thanks for listening!