A Scientist who Believes in the Power of Teamwork

Interview with IdeaConnection Problem Solver Stephen Boyle
By Paul Arnold
Stephen Boyle is an emeritus professor at Virginia Tech whose research interests focus on the application of recombinant DNA technology to vaccine development, particularly for vaccines against the bacterium Brucella that causes diseases in animals and humans.

photo of Stephen BoyleHe is also one of the founders of the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs, an organization with a mission to introduce methods to non-surgically sterilize dogs and cats. In this interview he talks about his career, research interests and successful experience with an IdeaConnection Tech Scouting project.

Initially what caught my eye in an email I received from IdeaConnection was the possibility of working as part of a team. And the reason why that appealed to me is that I had had a lot of success at Virginia Tech working with two colleagues for over 25 years, working with a bacterial pathogen called Brucella and trying to investigate its pathogenesis. Working together actually led to the development of a USDA approved vaccine to prevent Brucellosis in cattle and we were all involved in it. Working with colleagues on common problems has always appealed to me.

As I scanned the problems at that time listed by IdeaConnection none of them per se involved my particular background in molecular biology and bacterial pathogenesis, however there was one Tech Scouting project involving plant sequencing that caught my eye.

I was aware of what my colleagues here at Virginia Tech were doing in terms of host-pathogen interaction because I helped to organize a major conference at our university in which we discussed the ability of organisms to cause diseases. I remembered a number of Virginia Tech plant scientists using plants to model host-pathogen interactions and I asked myself who I knew who might be able to provide the solution to that problem, and I came up with the name of a person I though was a possible provider and I contacted him.

So essentially you acted as a sort of talent scout?

Yes, I was providing the person who could provide a solution for the seeker. A couple of months later IdeaConnection got in touch and said that my proposal to use the person had been accepted by the seeker and that I would be awarded the finder’s fee.

Did you celebrate?

Once I received the money the first thing I thought of were tax implications, because when you are retired you are in a different tax status. But overall I was very pleased. I do some consultancy work, and if I get one of these a year that will be a nice tidy sum to use. My wife and I like to travel and when I told her she was ecstatic.

You mentioned teamwork earlier; what is it about working in a team that appeals to you?

First of all, I am not one of those scientists who likes to work by themselves. Some of the problems you get into involve things that you’re not quite familiar with and so you have to do a lot more work in terms of preparing yourself to tackle a particular problem. I’ve always worked in teams.

I was working in a university in a particular college which is a veterinary school. I had been recruited to help bring molecular biology into their disease research program and I was fortunate to have two colleagues who I became very close friends with, and who I worked with on a common research problem.

I was trained as a straight gene regulation person in bacteria, another one was trained as a veterinarian with an interest in DNA and another as a veterinarian with an interest in immune responses that cattle have to diseases.

We were funded separately and working on three different problems but we would talk in the hallways and over coffee about what we were doing and then one day one of my colleagues said: ‘you know there’s really nothing known about the molecular biology of this particular bacterial pathogen so why don’t we work together?’

It worked out very well for us scientifically because we were each able to bring our own expertise to bear on Brucella and at the time we started working together in 1987-88 there was very little known about the molecular genetics of this bacterium. So we had an unique opportunity to be at the forefront of understanding the molecular basis of its pathogenesis.

We wound up developing a vaccine strain that improved upon the then current vaccine significantly and became USDA approved. Now it’s being used in many parts of the world. It’s refreshing to know you’re working together to improve on a vaccine that would eventually help reduce the incidence of the disease. Brucella cause Brucellosis or undulant fever in humans and it can spread from animals to humans. If you knock down the incidence in animals you see a drop in the incidence in humans.

And you’re still working together?
Yes, we’re looking at ways of developing new therapeutic measures. Brucella is an intracellular bacterial pathogen so once it infects the host animal or human, it gets inside cells of the immune system where it lives and replicates, making it difficult to treat with antibiotics.

Tell me about your interest in the non-surgical sterilization of cats and dogs.

It’s a huge problem worldwide, and related to the fact that most people don’t contracept animals through spade or neutering. All it takes is one loose female cat or dog to breed and within a year you have dozens of offspring running around doing the same thing.

My interest was sparked by a veterinary student who approached me and asked to work in my lab for the summer.

When I asked her which project in my laboratory she wanted to work on she said that none were suitable for her, but that she loved the idea of working on recombinant DNA technology to help control dog and cat overpopulation. She wondered if a vaccine could be developed to do it.

So I told her I didn’t have any funding for contraceptive research and she made a deal with me. She said if I allowed her to work in the lab and learn the technology she’ll find the funding. And she did. So we started working on developing a contraceptive vaccine that could be delivered to dogs or cats.
I began to realize that what I knew about reproductive physiology wasn’t enough because I was trained as a microbiologist. So, with the idea of working as a team, I formed a group of people interested in contraceptive and reproductive physiology and who wanted to apply the knowledge to animal and dog overpopulation.

I received some funding from a foundation and we held a meeting and the result of that was the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs. That organization is still active in promoting what’s going on in the field as well as funding some research on different ideas into non-surgical contraceptive technology.

And I believe this all led to one of the highlights of your career?

After about eight years, a very wealthy physician in California who had heard of our organization approached us. He was very interested in the area and had founded The Found Animals Foundation. He was also a bit of an entrepreneur with over 200 patents to his name.

He took our advisory board and used it as a scientific advisory board in the first two years following the creation of his foundation. His foundation offers a $25 million first prize for a one-step type of approach to contracepting dogs and cats.

And to me, this is a career highlight in having helped someone who’s not only interested in the welfare of dogs and cats, but who also provided an incentive for others to get involved. Not only with the prize, but the foundation provides grants for people to work towards getting that prize.

And it all started with a veterinary student who had the presumption to say our vaccine work with Brucella was somewhat irrelevant to what she was interested in. And now there are several products coming on the market and being tested in different countries that appear to offer non-surgical alternatives to controlling fertility in cats and dogs.

And finally, can I just ask you about your motivation as a scientist and what drives you?

The initial draw is that I’ve always been interested in how things work and during my undergraduate days in college I became interested in the biological sciences and had taken courses in both bacteriology and biochemistry. There was one particular course where we had a chance to get some extra credit, and we had just learned about the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson, Wilkins and Crick. We could put forward any project we liked to earn the extra credit so we proposed to extract DNA because the knowledge about it was very new at the time.

So we extracted DNA from a non-pathogenic bacterium and got the extra credit. And then I went onto graduate school at the University of Rhode Island, and my mentor introduced me to single celled bacterium, Escherichia coli, that we were only just beginning to learn about in terms of replication, let alone causing disease.

My experience at graduate school was very critical to allowing me to pursue my career as a scientist and my other motivation, a mentor who taught me how best to use controls in experimental design.

I’ve always felt very fortunate to be able to help introduce molecular biology into a medical school, where I taught for 12 years, and a veterinary school for the last 25, so that students appreciate the role that nucleic acids have on their patients – for understanding diseases, helping diagnosis and developing treatments.

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