Jonathan King: (Edward L. Loechler)
I have been a Professor of Biology at Boston University since 1984. I have published 80+ scientific articles in my field of specialization: how chemicals cause cancer. I closed my lab several years ago, but continue to teach, which I love. I teach Molecular Biology to advanced undergraduates and 1st year graduate students, as well as half of Genetics (mostly to Sophomores), and the chemistry/biochemistry/molecular biology portion of Freshman biology.
Jonathan has had a SIGNIFICANT impact on multiple aspects of my life, which I wish to acknowledge in my recollections. He has influenced me scientifically – yes – but also politically and even musically. I am extremely grateful for all three. Though these topics may seem disparate, they’re actually intertwined.
The barebone outline is that I first met Jonathan in a political context when I joined Science for the People in about 1973. I joined Jonathan’s lab in 1979 and stayed until 1982.
I am a serious amateur musician and perform regularly. I sing and play “Roots Music,” mostly music of the 1920/30s. I play mostly music in the black tradition, but I also play music from Appalachia.
Before I joined Jonathan’s lab, guitar and mandolin were my instruments. But I wanted to play banjo also. Turns out, Jonathan is a banjo player, and he kept a banjo in the lunchroom.
When I had an incubation and/or wanted a breather, I’d often go into the common room, pick up Jonathan’s banjo and plunk on it. For the life of me, I couldn’t get the hang of playing the traditional “clawhammer” (frailing) style of banjo playing, which I desperately wanted to learn. It didn’t have to do fretting the banjo with my left hand—I knew banjo chords and could finger almost any stringed instrument easily, because of my guitar playing. It had to do with my string-plucking, right hand. I always attributed my failure to the fact that clawhammer style is antithetical (whopperjawed) in so many ways in comparison to the finger style of guitar I play. (I won’t go into the details.)
I knew what I had to do—I just couldn’t do it. Jonathan always offered me encouragement and tips. “Think of it like this. . . . ”Try taking it slowly at first, and then speed up, until…” But I just couldn’t get the hang of it.
One day I took Jonathon’s banjo and my lunch, and sat on the grass next to the Green Building. One moment I couldn’t do it. And the next moment I could. It was a eureka moment.
I’ve often reflected on what happens in eureka moments, when one makes a quantum leap in terms of understanding or ability. Literally, in one instant, my right hand couldn’t maintain the clawhammer rhythm, and in the next moment I could have kept it going until I fell asleep. And I’ve never regressed. I mostly play guitar and mandolin. Sometimes I don’t play banjo or months. But whenever I pick it up. . . . I can play. Just like riding a bike. Or juggling. Or thinking like a physical chemist. Or swinging a golf club. Or. . . .
Jonathan guided me to many eureka moments (as I’ll explain), though I wanted to begin with the banjo. My life would be much less rich without Jonathan’s encouragement and just the fact that he kept a banjo in the lab. It brings me such joy. And I wouldn’t be able to perform hits like: Way Down the Old Plank Road, Whoop, ‘Em Up Cindy, or Bring It With You When You Come.
Florence Reece was the wife of a coal miner in Harlan County Kentucky during the bloody conflicts between mine owners and miners when the United Mine Workers Union was being organized in the 1930s. She wrote a remarkable song called: Which Side Are You On.
Not only is this song a remarkable piece of music, with moving and heartful words that capture insights into the struggles and battles of poor working people fighting to secure a measure of the fruits of their labor, but also the song articulates that we are not all the same in America. There really are sides. In this capitalist system, one side owns the means of production, and the other side provides the labor that is needed to realize that production. And is it ever a battle!
I may have always known that on some level. But not with clarity.
More than anyone in my life, Jonathan helped me understand the crucial and foundational meaning of the song, Which Side Are You On. That there is something called “class struggle,” and that either explicitly or implicitly each individual is always facing decisions that can be placed in the context of Which Side Are You On. Current contexts include: climate change, women’s rights, voting rights, health care, gun control and even democracy itself. You name it. Which side are you on?
Jonathan helped me understand other fundamental political principles as well. Identifying the “main danger” and then focusing on the key way to address it. [What song? Maybe: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.] Subjective truth vs. objective truth, and how clever deceivers can use one to obfuscate the other. [Maybe: Banks of Marble.]
Science for the People started in the 1960s as an effort to expose how science could be exploited to serve the wrong side. It was an outgrowth of how science was being used to further the Viet Nam War.
But whatever the origin of Science for the People, joining it introduced me to a way of thinking about the political world in a more systematic and scientific way. And Jonathan – more than anyone else – was key. The first context involved the emerging recombinant DNA technology or genetic engineering. SftP’s position had two components. First, genetic engineering would be creating novel organisms that had never before existed, so it was imperative that that the work must be done safely, using containment protocols that would ensure that novel organism could not escape and cause harm. Second, the goals must be to maximize the benefit to society and not to maximize the profits of biotechnology firms.
Though these goals may seem idealistic, even quaint, for me they became bedrock principles that I have tried to follow ever since. A significant fraction of the foundation of genetic engineering emerged at Harvard and MIT in Cambridge. And the City of Cambridge was concerned about potential risks from novel organisms and held hearings. I like to think that SftP’s perspective at these hearings helped focus attention on these two goals.
Jonathan was one of the prominent spokespersons for this position. I came to admire his ability to present the key issues in an articulate and convincing manner. Not to mention in a charming style—he used his Brooklyn brogue to great effect, and sprinkled in witticisms, colorful illustrations and apt analogies. Jonathan’s style of presentation became a model for what I hoped I could do some day.
I also came to appreciate that – though Jonathan’s presentations flowed in such a natural and comfortable way that they seemed extemporaneous, even off the cuff – that in fact, his remarks were carefully crafted. He had read extensively, such that he had a foundation of facts and perspectives to draw on. Plus, he had carefully thought through the logic and flow of his remarks. His example became a model not only for my political talks, but also for my scientific talks.
I was blessed to learn from Jonathan in SftP and later in the group Job with Peace, which opposed President Regan’s military buildup. I learned many truths, perhaps most importantly that – while spending on the military does stimulate the economy – more stimulation occurs when the goal of spending is human needs. I will always remember Jonathan cleverly illustrating this truth by saying: you can’t eat a missile; you can’t live in a missile; and you can’t drive a missile to work.
But I was also blessed to learn from Jonathan in several Study Groups: one on political philosophy and the other on the occupational causes on cancer. Each groups heightened my awareness of the politics all around us, not to mention the imperative to ask the question: which side are you on, what is the main danger, and what is the objective reality—and don’t be hoodwinked by someone trying to deceive with some clever subjective reality.
I’ve been a committed political activist ever since. My political activism has diverged significantly from Jonathan’s political activism. And in all honesty, I’m not sure which of us has identified the true “main danger,” but I do know that both of us have continued to pursue important political battles. And what I do know—and want to acknowledge, celebrate and be thankful for – is that Jonathan opened my eyes to importance of politics and helped me understand many key and foundational principles that have guided me ever since.
So. . . In my life, I have been blessed to have found four mentors, each of whom helped guide me in a different facet of my life’s development. Jonathan was my political mentor, for which I am grateful beyond measure.
I was an undergraduate chemistry major. I loved chemistry. But chemistry didn’t seem “relevant enough” to devote my professional life to. Though my thinking was vague, unsophisticated, and ungrounded, I imagined there must be a way to merge my abilities as a chemist with people’s needs. In that fog – and having to make a quick decision (a long story) – I decided to merge my interest in chemistry with biology, which (naively) meant studying biochemistry.
Ultimately, I got a PhD in Biochemistry from Brandeis University. Though this process nudged me along my scientific path, it still didn’t provide the vision I was looking for.
However, in SftP I learned about the needs of workers being exposed to occupation chemicals. Now that seemed like something worth pursuing as a postdoctoral fellow.
Because of my personal circumstances, I began exploring possible laboratory positions in the greater Boston area. There were many possibilities, but I was grateful when Jonathan told me about a postdoctoral research project opportunity in his lab. The idea struck me as fresh and unique. A project that proposed a new potential way that chemicals might be causing environmental and occupational harm.
The basic idea was the following. Some chemicals that interact with DNA can absorb photons of light and become excited to a triplet state, from which they can interact with triplet oxygen to give singlet oxygen. Singlet oxygen is very reactive and can covalently modify almost any molecule, including DNA, RNA, proteins, etc. This is called “photodynamic activation.” Jerry Bryant did his PhD thesis in Jonathan’s lab on this topic, and I continued Jerry’s work. Jerry was a wonderful teacher and is an even better individual. I only wish that Jerry wasn’t on his way out when I was on my way in.
The work used Salmonella phage P22 as the model system. Soot produced by incomplete combustion contains a witch’s brew of toxic molecules, a significant fraction of which are aromatic and contain nitrogen. Prominently the acridines.
Jerry had established that acridines bound P22 particles, absorbed visible light, giving singlet oxygen, which then damaged P22 particle proteins, thus causing particle inactivation. In some ways Jerry’s most interesting finding was that protein damage, and not DNA damage, was responsible for acridine’s photodynamic inactivation of P22.
My major finding was consistent with Jerry’s finding. Acridines rapidly intercalate between the DNA base pairs, but the rate of intercalation was faster than the rate of P22 inactivation. After intercalation, acridines bind to DNA more slowly in a second mode, whereby they interact in the grooves of DNA. I showed that the rate of P22 inactivation correlated with the rate of binding of acridines in the DNA grooves. When bound in the DNA grooves, acridines would be in closer proximity to P22 particle proteins, and, thus, better able to cause the protein damage that Jerry had established was responsible for P22 particle inactivation.
I enjoyed working on this project. It drew on my chemical background in thermodynamics and kinetics, and it related to a novel mechanism by which chemicals can damage biological molecules. And perhaps most importantly, it introduced me to the field of molecular biology in a gentle way, since there was still enough chemistry in the project to keep me satisfied.
My experience in the lab only enhanced my perception that Jonathan is a genius. Because I’m remembering back over forty years, I’m not able to recall specific examples, but I remember marveling at the brilliance of his insights at group meetings and in our private conversations. I remember there being a collection of posted quotes of Jonathan’s wisdom about research. Unfortunately, I only remember one, which was something like: Do the experiment that speaks to the problem and not the one that titillates. I always thought of this quote when I started thinking about wanting to do some flight-of-fancy exploratory work that seemed like it might lead in a cool and even wild new direction.
I also loved the spirit in the King lab. Jon is warm, upbeat and convivial, and he attracted people to his lab with that same spirit. I should add that I developed some close and lifelong friendships with people I met in Jonathan’s lab. Interestingly, with folks who also were musicians. I formed a little band with Minx Fuller, who is a wonderful singer and guitar player, along with her significant other, Matt Scott, who is also a fine singer and a banjo player. Plus, David Goldenberg, who became a banjo player as well.
I want to add that when I joined Jonathan’s lab, I was very naïve about how the funding of science worked. As an undergraduate and a graduate student, I never encountered a faculty member writing a grant proposal or fretting over funding. As a graduate student I was supported on a departmental training grant, and my support seemed assured. I assumed that funding would always be flowing to support whatever work I was doing, and I didn’t need to worry about funding. Looking back, I made some bad decisions in my ignorance. Jonathan helped me better understand the process of funding, though—even with his help—I still didn’t really grasp the reality until I had my own lab.
Jonathan is one of the most brilliant individuals I’ve ever met.
And I am always amazed at the breadth of his knowledge. Here’s an example. At one point I was having personal problems that were very upsetting. It was at a time when I was about to take a 3-week hiking trip, on which I would be alone a lot. I knew I would need distractions. I asked various friends to recommend books to read. I got a lot of recommendations, complete with synopses. Jonathan suggested four books, and I must admit that I liked his suggestions best, so I bought, brought and read all four, though I can only remember two now: Dune and All God’s Dangers.
Jonathan, congratulations on being 80 years young. And I do mean “young,” because from my point of view, you have retained your boyish exuberance and passion for life. Not to mention your commitment to working to make the world a better place, which is a quality I have always admired and tried to emulate.
Thank you beyond measure for all you have given me. You are among the greatest persons I have ever met. For which I am truly grateful.