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COOL CAREERS IN SCIENCE

Photo of Roy Walford Meet Roy Walford.

He's a doctor who researches how a low-calorie, highly nutritious diet can improve our health and help us live longer. How cool is that?!
Question What inspired you to become a doctor and to focus on the biology of aging?
Answer Many reasons. (a) I thought as long ago as high school that life is simply too short to do all the things that one would like to do, so the first task is to make it longer. (b) Markedly extending life span (or becoming immortal, in myth and story) is one of humankind's classic dreams or goals, and the idea pervades literature, history, science and myth. Think of the Fountain of Youth. The Elixir of Life. The legend of Gilgamesh. And in Frankenstein, to take a familiar example, the monster does not age. Count Dracula was a very successful practicing gerontologist. So I knew I'd be in good company. (c) Aging is a fascinating problem in fundamental biology.
Question What educational background do you need to do the work you do?
Answer In general, for my specific kind of work, you need an M.D. or a Ph.D. in some pertinent area of biology such as molecular genetics. However, the subject of aging is so broad that it can be approached from many "backgrounds," such as mathematics, physics, natural history, botany. There are important questions about aging that a background in any of these would help you to answer.
Question What do you do during a typical day at work?
Answer I go over the day's protocol with my laboratory technicians, and sometimes, depending on what is to be done, participate in the actual work. I check my animal colonies, which may number 500 to 600 mice on various kinds of diet. I spend quite a bit of time reading the scientific literature. I generally have some kind of writing to do, such as preparing a manuscript for publication, or preparing a research grant proposal for submission to the National Institutes of Health or elsewhere, or preparing a lecture or a teaching assignment for medical students. Since I am now 75 years old, I no longer have to do committee and such work at UCLA, but in earlier times, "service" work of that nature, or time spent in the hospital's clinical laboratory, or performing an autopsy, might also be part of my day.
Question What do you enjoy most about your work? Is there anything about it you don't like?
Answer On one level, I enjoy the breadth of the subject-matter, that Aging/Anti-Aging pervades, as I've said, literature, history, science, etc. You jump into the jacuzzi with fistful of sprouts and granola. But hey! The jacuzzi is just a modern version of "the Fountain" myth. On quite another level -- detailed studies of the tiny vinegar worm, C. elegans, are unlocking secrets pertinent to what I do with mice. There's a great deal of cross-fertilization going on in aging studies (gerontology). I enjoy that. Is there anything I don't like? Yes, like most of my colleagues, I don't like having to raise money to do the research. I'm pretty good at it, but it's a pain.
Question If I'm a student thinking about a career like yours, what can I do now to prepare?
Answer Go for a pertinent, advanced degree in mathematics or some branch of science. If you go for a branch of science as major, then make mathematics a minor subject. Also, it's important that you learn how to write well.
Question Is there anything else you'd like to let Frontiers viewers know about yourself or your career?
Answer Well, if you want to know more about me personally, there are good "profiles" (minibiographies) in the February 2000 issues of DISCOVER magazine and SCIENCE SPECTRA.

If you would like to know more about Roy Walford, you can visit his website, read his biography or check out the questions he answered for Never Say Die (Show 1003).



 

Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.