Youth, elder share drive to push research frontiers

Steve Gladfelter/VAS

Dale Kaiser, 79, who has taught almost half a century at Stanford, met recently with Andrew Hsu, 16, who started his PhD program in neuroscience this fall.

The youngest scientist on campus showed up prepared. He had a list of questions for one of the oldest scientists on the medical school campus. No way was he letting this chance slip by.

"Who was your hero?" asked Andrew Hsu, 16, reading from a piece of paper he pulled out of his pocket. The teenager, who started his PhD program in neuroscience at Stanford this fall, sat across from Dale Kaiser, PhD, 79, who has taught almost half a century at Stanford and still works in the lab.

"Linus Pauling," Kaiser answered fairly easily.

It's an orchestrated meeting of the old and the young. The question of the day: What does age mean to a scientist? How does your age hurt you? How does it help? Does it really matter at all?

As a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology in the heyday of the genetics revolution, Kaiser was taught by Nobel prize winners like biochemist Pauling, and Max Delbruck of DNA fame. An exciting time, he remembers fondly. Like it is for biochemistry today, he said.

Andrew soaked it up. Passion for science is what it takes to get you into a lab on the Stanford campus so he brought his along with him. Passion and a lot of hard work and talent. And it doesn't hurt to have an off-the-charts IQ.

Andrew works just two buildings away from Kaiser in a neuroscience lab in the basement of the Clark Center. Kaiser's lab has been in the Beckman Center since the building was built back in 1989. They're meeting in his office, just off Kaiser's lab.

Kaiser's always happy to meet another young scientist. He's taught so many bright, passionate, young students over the years. Never one quite as young as Andrew though.

"My age is not an issue at all," said Andrew when asked. "Pretty much I just can't go to bars with the other students."

The gap between the young PhD student's age and his mental abilities appeared early on. At age 2, he was building Lego robots as tall as he was, and by 5 he was solving simple algebra problems. Homeschooling quickly became a necessity, according to his parents. They just gave him lots of thick textbooks and let him teach himself. This past spring, he graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle with three degrees—in neurobiology, biochemistry and chemistry.

"I was a competitive swimmer up until I was 12 years old when I quit," Andrew said. "I was in the middle of college and got too busy."

Andrew still lives at home with his parents and two younger brothers. The family moved from Washington to Mountain View after Andrew was accepted into Stanford's PhD program in neuroscience. His parents are helping him learn to drive.

"I thought the brain would be a really good model to study," said Andrew. "Plus, my grandfather has Alzheimer's. I always wanted to be a doctor, but I'm more interested in finding cures for diseases so I decided to go into neuroscience research."

They're alike, these two scientists, both intelligent, thoughtful, dressed in khaki pants, wearing glasses and brown lace-up shoes. And they're different too. Andrew's a fast talker, and has a full head of hair. Kaiser was born in 1927, the year before penicillin was discovered. His white hair is balding a bit, and he refuses to carry a cell phone. Andrew answers cell calls while riding his bike to school.

"How do you choose a thesis?" Andrew continued, choosing another question from his list. Kaiser paused, then looked up at the bookshelf above his desk trying to find a copy of his old thesis. It'd be a bit dusty by now. His thesis topic was the genetics of bacteria.

"Find something you'll enjoy doing for two years," Kaiser said. "It doesn't have to be your life's work," he said. That may come later.

Kaiser didn't initially set out to make his life's work the study of slime bacteria, or more scientifically put, the study of myxobacteria. But that's what it became.

"Myxo is a Greek word, in modern Greek it's a slang word for snot, which is slime, mucus," he said, as if this explains it all.

Professor emeritus of biochemistry and of developmental biology, Kaiser came to Stanford in 1959. His research has focused on chemical signaling between cells in multicellular organisms like myxobacteria. Among the many honors he has received was a 1980 Lasker Award for basic medical research for his "crucial role in creating recombinant DNA methodology through his path-breaking studies of cohesive single-stranded DNA."

It's a simple burning desire to figure out "how things work" that has kept him happily working with microscopic particles in a lab, day after day, for nearly half a century. He retired three years ago, but don't tell that to his wife.

"My wife says I'm working more now," he said with a laugh.

"I'll keep working until I come into class, and I don't make sense anymore," said Kaiser with a grin. He's teaching developmental biology next quarter. Like Andrew, age doesn't limit him much. Maybe his memory isn't quite as sharp as a teenager's, but he's got loads of experience.

"Intuition is very important in science," Kaiser says. "Biological science is so complicated. It's filled with so many things that we don't understand, like the brain. When you get to the point of making a theory of how something like neurocircuits work, intuition is key."

The more experience you have, the more you can trust your intuition, he said.

And he paused to consider another question from Andrew: "How do you become a good scientist?"

Kaiser's answer was simple. Follow your passion.

"It's your own nature telling you what you like to think about," Kaiser said. "It's your source of creativity. If you have fun doing it, and have some success in doing it, ordinarily you keep doing it until you run out of time."