Don Coffey's approach to teaching is simple. Take the smartest people
you can find, give them the opportunity, encouragement, and
environment they need to do what they want to do, and let them
get on with it.
This makes perfect sense, if you know Don
Coffey: As a young man, when he got the
overwhelming feeling that he was meant to
do cancer research — although nothing in
his life so far had remotely hinted that this
was to be his destiny, and he might as well
have had the overwhelming hunch that he
should take a walk on the moon — he didn't
dwell on all the reasons why this could never happen. He just figured out a way to do it.
We could devote this whole issue to one
of Hopkins' greatest scholars, thinkers,
mentors, and teachers. In fact, his life story
would make a pretty good movie, starring
an actor with great character; maybe Tommy Lee Jones could pull it off.
But instead,our job here is a lot harder — to give you a glimpse in a fairly short story of a great man, who has made Hopkins a better place for the last 50 years just by being here.
The bare bones are that Coffey, born in
1932 in Tennessee to parents who never finished high school, struggled in school. He
was dyslexic, but nobody knew this until he
had made it through college. He failed third
grade, and took five years to get through
high school, where he was a track star and avid Boy Scout; "I liked everything but school," he says. He worked full-time at a bakery, and then at a textile mill, to pay his way through college, supporting his wife, Eula (who later worked as a lab technician to support him in graduate school) and their first child; he also helped out his family during this time, as his father was seriously ill. Despite his mediocre grades, he impressed people everywhere he worked and studied with his uncanny ability to look into the heart of the most complex problems.
It surprises no one that Coffey left a good-paying job at Westinghouse because, while going to night school at Hopkins, he found out about an opening at the Brady Urological Institute — which he had never heard of — working in a lab; this put him one step closer to his goal of studying cancer. That, after a brief time, he had so
impressed faculty members, including the Brady's director, William W. Scott, M.D. Ph.D., that he was put in charge of the Brady Research Laboratories — a position he would hold for 30 years — before he even had a Ph.D.; that Scott and others helped get Coffey into graduate school at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; and that, unbeknownst to Coffey, Scott even paid part of his stipend out of his own pocket, just to help him afford to get his doctorate in biochemistry, which he earned in 1964. That Coffey, who started at Hopkins as a technician and washer of laboratory glassware, would become a full professor in five departments (Urology, Oncology, Pathology, Pharmacology, and Molecular Sciences), that for more than a year he would run the Cancer Center — the second-largest clinical department at Hopkins — without having an M.D.; that he would be on the Principal Professional Staff at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory even though he's never had a course in physics. He is the Catherine Iola and J. Smith Michael Distinguished Professor of Urology. He has a professorship named after him, too, and its first recipient is one of his former graduate students, Robert Getzenberg, who succeeded Coffey as Director of the Research Laboratories.
His colleagues are unanimous:
Of all Coffey's achievements, the
most important is that he has
attracted, inspired, and trained
the leaders in the field.
"It doesn't make any sense," Coffey freely admits. But in a way, it does. "You don't have to know how to work on a car to drive a car," he says. "Cooking doesn't require courses. Driving doesn't require courses. Playing a musical instrument doesn't require courses." You just have to figure out how to do it, and do it well. "Don is a genius," says longtime friend and colleague, Patrick C. Walsh, M.D., Distinguished Service Professor of Urology. He credits Coffey's "brilliant ability to simplify" as the key factor in one of Coffey's most important discoveries, the nuclear matrix of cells, the scaffolding that provides the structure of a cell's nucleus, and helps organize its DNA. In cancer cells, Coffey discovered, the nucleus looks different. "As a non-pathologist," explains Walsh, "he was able to simplify the pathology of cancer down to one rule: The nucleus is irregular. He then set out to find what makes a nucleus round, and in the process, discovered the nuclear matrix."
We asked some of his colleagues for a few words on Don Coffey
Here's a sample of what they had to say:
H. Ballentine Carter, M.D.:
Some favorite Don Coffey quotes: Ignorance is eating you alive, boy!" (Often said during heated arguments about science.) Don't assume anything you can prove." You must give someone permission to insult you."
You are more likely to learn something when the experiment does not turn out the way you predicted."
You can learn something from everyone."
Shawn E. Lupold, Ph.D.:
Don has one paradigm on which I frequently ponder. He says that, while he has never baked an apple pie, nor does he know the first thing about apple pies, he could teach you how to be one of the best apple pie makers in the world. Not the best, but one of the best. It is straightforward approaches such as these that allow Don to look at a complicated field and make it simple. Find out who are the best in the field, talk to them, learn what makes them the best, find your own niche in the field, and start your work. One key point is not needing to be the best right away, but one of the best. Don carefully provides the advice and confidence so that you make progress and feel that you are indeed one of the best. What's more, he's done it in a way so that you've achieved, more or less, on your own and can feel proud.
Robert Getzenberg, Ph.D.:
He inspires. He promotes the importance of young people with new outlooks as the future of the field. He does all of this in a selfless fashion — never wanting, much less asking, for the attention to be focused on him, but with a strong interest in promoting others. It is a different model of doing science, the polar opposite of a big lab with an army of postdocs. He never has had a big lab group. His impact has come from asking the most important questions and then letting people run with their ideas, with his support behind them.
Angelo M. De Marzo, M.D., Ph.D.:
Don has a heart for people like no other I've met. He will always stop and take time to listen about what is going on in your life, whether it is related to science, home life, or some difficulty with an interpersonal relationship or political conundrum. Don rarely says no" when he is asked to perform virtually anything for anyone. Another amazing thing about Don is that not only does he have this deep caring for other people, but he has an unbelievable gift of insight and the ability to perceive critical issues about a problem and then communicate highly innovative and effective solutions — almost always without directly telling his advisee what to do. The odds that one person would simultaneously possess these two incredible characteristics, the ability to care deeply for nearly everyone he encounters, and incredible insight and brilliance into all types of problems, are so small that it is difficult to comprehend.
But of all of Coffey's achievements — his colleagues are unanimous on this point — the most important is that he has attracted, inspired, and trained the leaders in the field. He is truly the father of modern science in prostate disease because of the many scientists he has personally trained, and the hundreds of others he has influenced," says Walsh. Today, when one looks at the leaders in urological research, everyone of them has the imprint of Don Coffey, one way or another." Alan W. Partin, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Brady, didn't know he wanted to be a urologist until he spent four years working in Coffey's lab as a graduate student; before that, he had wanted to be a pediatrician. Don Coffey has the most unique grasp of human nature I have ever witnessed," says Partin. He has touched the lives of countless individuals both within urology and oncology, and pressed them always to ask the question, "'if this is true, what does it mean?'"
Coffey's approach to teaching is simple. Tell me the smartest people, and I don't care what they do, I'm helping them." A partial list of his former graduate students includes some of the top scientists in urology and oncology: Partin, Getzenberg, William Nelson, Drew Pardoll, Arthur Burnett, Bert Vogelstein, John Isaacs, Herb Lepor, Angelo De Marzo, Shawn Lupold, and William Isaacs. All these great people," says Coffey. It's not that I teach them anything. It's that, if you're the best, I'll give you an opportunity to do your thing, and we're on our way."
Coffey is working on the TEMT
project, seeking to understand
why heating cancer cells makes
them more susceptible to all
forms of therapy. Because he is
Don Coffey, his research includes
how heat affects life — how when
a hen sits on an egg, it hatches.
Coffey is working on the TEMT project (Temperature Enhanced Metastatic Therapy), seeking to understand why heating cancer cells makes them more susceptible to all forms of therapy. Because he is Don Coffey, his research includes how heat affects life — how when a hen sits on an egg, it hatches. He is 76 years old, and still going strong. In fact, he is moving faster than ever," says Getzenberg. Almost daily, I receive calls from him at 6 or 7 a.m., where he has been up for a while and in reading has come up with some exciting novel concepts that we should follow up on. He dedicates every day of his life to making an impact on prostate cancer, and to his family. In many ways, those of us that he has touched so deeply are part of his family. I believe that through his thinking and guidance we are getting closer to affecting prostate cancer in a significant fashion within the next several years."
Says Coffey about his work: I've dedicated my life, I hope to die doing this. I don't need any more honors, I'm paid more than I'm worth, I probably should get out of the way, but I still have questions."
A Few of Coffey's Honors and Awards
Among many other honors and awards, Don Coffey has served as President of the American Association for Cancer Research, President of the Society for Basic Urologic Research, and has served on several major editorial boards. For 19 years, he served as a member of the National Prostatic Cancer Program of the National Cancer Institute, and as National Chairman of this board for four years. He has published more than 250 research papers. Coffey has received the Robert Edwards Award from the Tenovus Institute, both the Fuller Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Urological Association, the First Society of International Urology-Yamanouchi Research Award, that society's highest research award, and the Distinguished Service Award from the American Cancer Society. He is the recipient of two Merit Awards from the National Institutes of Health. And, despite being, as he puts it, a raving liberal," he was appointed by President George W. Bush to the National Cancer Advisory Board in 2006.