George Meade Shaw

George Meade Shaw was raised on a farm near Logan, Ohio.  He sped through an MD-PhD degree program in five years, followed by an Internal Medicine residency, and then landed a Post-Doctoral Fellowship position at the National Cancer Institute in Dr. Gallo’s laboratory as part of his training to become an oncologist. George went to Gallo’s lab to study HTLV-I, which was known to cause diseases including T-cell leukemia/lymphoma syndrome, a rare cancer of the immune system’s own cells. But while George was working there, others in Gallo’s lab discovered that a cousin retrovirus, HTLV-III, was the cause of AIDS

On January 2, 1986, I showed up in George’s laboratory—or rather, the laboratory he shared with the formidable Beatrice Hahn. A native of Munich, Germany, Beatrice had worked with George in Gallo’s lab and came to UAB when he did.  Once the AIDS virus was discovered, Beatrice was the first person in the world to clone and sequence it, which is why the original sequence’s name, BH-10, includes Beatrice Hahn’s initials.

I didn’t need a microscope to see how my two lab mentors differed. George was easily knocked off task, and still is today, if asked a question that strikes his fancy. Beatrice was then and remains always on point, intensely focused, strong-willed.  If asked to take on projects not directly related to her research, she has no problem saying “no” or some variant of “no” often peppered with expletives.  George has described Beatrice as “right 95 percent of the time, and when she is right, she is absolutely right.”  He did not mention the rest of the story: She may not be particularly merciful to those who are wrong.  Beatrice does her work as if lives depend on it; she takes it seriously.  If you have other priorities, she has some language she’ll share with you, but no time.   \

My first day in their lab, George showed me how to run a test called a Southern Blot. The test detects DNA in much the same way that a Western Blot detects antibodies. But that day, I had the sense that this test might also be used to detect something else: my seriousness, aptitude and precision in the lab.  I watched George meticulously prepare the buffers, materials, sponges, and nitrocellulose paper required to do the Southern Blot.  I took copious notes.  Working with cells from a patient infected with HTLV-III, we were seeking an answer to a critical question: How many different viruses exist in any AIDS patient?

Step one in the Southern Blot is to extract from the cells their DNA, which contains genetic material from the virus. Next, the extracted DNA is treated with enzymes that cut it into fragments at particular locations in its coding, much like a scissors could cut a string of soft spaghetti. Then, using test agents and electrical current, the fragments are run through a gel that separates them by size, “denatured” from the usual double strand into a single-strand state, and transferred to nitrocellulose paper.  The paper is incubated with radioactively-labeled virus fragments that bond tightly and specifically to any denatured HTLV-III virus present on the paper.  It is then washed, dried, and, in a darkroom, placed into a cassette containing X-ray film.  The next morning, the film is developed and any fragments of viral DNA show up as dark bands at specific locations, depending on how many times the DNA was cut by the enzymes. When the test is done properly, it will show the distinct characteristics of the individual’s virus, as unique to that patient as his or her fingerprint.

I realized immediately that this type of lab work was like gourmet cooking: There were techniques, a recipe, and a final product that could be utterly ruined by imprecision.  It took two weeks for me to become comfortable performing the Southern Blot test.  Once George was sure I was competent, he handed me a small vial containing clear, viscous fluid and said, “Here’s your project.”  He might as well have said, “Here’s your future.”


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