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<em>Science</em> Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Berg Is a Polymath at Heart

Jeremy Berg Colloquium Series


Jeremy Berg, the new editor-in-chief of Science, recounts his varied career as part of the AAAS Colloquium Series. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

Jeremy Berg, the new editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, brings to his role what he calls an “eclectic scientific background,” demonstrating during a 25 August talk about his career a contagious curiosity that has fueled his diverse scientific interests.

Introducing Berg at AAAS’ monthly Colloquium Series, which features timely topics relevant to science and society, Rush Holt, the chief executive officer of AAAS and the publisher of the Science family of journals, praised the breadth of Berg’s experiences.

Berg is an “outstanding researcher and a figure of note” fluent in multiple fields of science as well as being a chemist by training, said Holt. “Jeremy Berg is really a polymath, with an emphasis on the word ‘math,’” Holt said. “He is really data-driven.”

Berg was unanimously selected to lead Science based “not just his academic background and his knowledge of science, but also because of his broad interest in science and society, his understanding of the essence of science, and his interest in and good thinking about publishing, and his overall good judgment,” said Holt.

Berg’s diverse scientific background made him a natural fit to serve as the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Personalized Medicine’s first director, a position he relinquished when he came to Science in July. “I know a little about a lot instead of a lot about a little,” Berg said. Personalized medicine – the use of technologies like genomics to give patients specially tailored treatments and medications – “is actually is mostly about integrating a whole variety of things, from computer science to clinical implementation,” Berg said.

Berg came to the University of Pittsburgh in 2011, when his wife, Dr. Wendie Berg, who also holds a Ph.D. and is a leading breast imaging researcher, was recruited as a professor. Since meeting as undergraduate lab partners, the pair has been playing a “two-career leapfrog,” Berg said, displaying a diagram that tracked their parallel careers, interspersed with personal milestones, such as their wedding and the births of their three children, now adults. “I’m a little nerdy,” he said of the diagram, drawing laughs from the audience.

Before the couple decamped for Pittsburgh, Berg spent nearly eight years as the director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health. Berg drew parallels between AAAS and the institute, noting that both organizations support many fields of study. Like AAAS, the institute supports basic science in key clinical areas and also plays an active role in training and diversity programs at NIH, Berg said.

Joining NIH from academia – he was previously a professor at Johns Hopkins University – gave Berg a unique perspective on how best to communicate the institute’s policies to the scientific community. He started a newsletter and the NIGMS “Feedback Loop Blog,” the first written by an NIH director.

“I found it incredibly useful for communicating things to the community,” Berg said. “We were also very good at getting comments back the other way. There were lots of good ideas that came back” from readers, he added.

Since then, Berg has continued outreach efforts as a blogger. He founded the Datahound blog in 2014, and now explores data and analyses underlying issues relevant to science with his Sciencehound blog.

“I’m very passionate about science communications broadly defined, from scientific results through policy, and to the scientific community but also the public,” Berg told Science in May, when his appointment as editor-in-chief was announced.

Throughout his career, as Holt noted, Berg has been recognized for his research. His penchant for research began when he was an undergraduate at Stanford, where he co-authored a paper on crystallography in Nature in his junior year. His interest in chemical synthesis led him to pursue a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry at Harvard, focusing on synthesizing a molecule that would mimic a structure and reactivity of a molybdenum-containing metalloenzyme. “I realized I was much more interested in the biology” of the enzymes, Berg said, so he went on to hold a postdoctoral fellowship in biophysics at Johns Hopkins working on DNA-binding proteins.

As a faculty member, Berg faced the challenge of deciding on which discipline to focus: bioinorganic chemistry, where most of his expertise lay, or DNA-binding proteins, “an emerging, exciting field,” he said. Clarity came after he learned about a protein called the Transcription Factor IIIA that was shown to contain zinc, which is required for DNA-binding activities. “After about one nanosecond of hard thought,” Berg recognized that the inorganic, DNA-binding protein would be a novel area to leverage his combined interests.

Berg is perhaps best known in the scientific community for his work on the zinc finger proteins, including the successful prediction of the three-dimensional structures of the TFIIIA-type zinc finger domains. Illuminating the structure was very exciting, Berg said, because it suggested a pathway for designing DNA-binding proteins. “If you know how one zinc finger binds DNA,” Berg said, “you should just be able to say, ‘OK, let’s string these together and mix them and match them to make novel DNA-binding proteins,” which Berg and other researchers began to work on.

The research can be applied to create enzymes that recognize, target, and cleave DNA, make changes to the cell, and fix the cleavage site: genome engineering before the advent of CRISPR/Cas9, Berg said. Take the case of Timothy Ray Brown, who was living with AIDS and had developed leukemia, as an example of how the research has been applied. Berg said Brown received a bone marrow transplant from a compatible donor with a “knockout” in a particular gene that is a co-receptor for HIV, curing him of leukemia and AIDS.

Berg’s current research uses computational methods to determine the strength of bonds between molecules and receptors based on their structures.

Berg noted that he is not alone in his less-than-traditional career path.

“There have been a lot of discussions about [what are] pejoratively called ‘alternative careers,’” but it is not a new phenomenon, Berg said. “Over my whole career, students and postdocs have gone on to do all kinds of different things,” he said, closing his presentation by recounting the members of his lab who, after completing Ph.D.s, have gone on to careers not only in academia, but industry, government, clinical practice, and more.  

“It’s good for them and it’s good for society,” Berg said of their diverse career paths.

[Associated image: A word cloud created by Jeremy Berg from his CV]