Jim Maher, biochemist and molecular biologist at Mayo Clinic, dean of The Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences
Rochester Magazine: Your college thesis at UW Madison was titled [butchering pronunciation) : “Antisense oligonucleotides and oligonucleoside methylphosphonates as inhibitors of eukaryotic mRNA translation.”
Jim Maher: That’s really good.
RM: What grade did you get on that?
JM: I passed, so I got my Ph.D. So I got the “P.”
RM: But a lot of those words could just be made up right? No one would really know.
JM: Only a specialist could judge if that was a real thing. Thesis titles you write mostly for your parents. So you have this document you’ve sweated for six, seven years on and it ends up on the coffee table of your parents so they can say to their friends, “My son finished his thesis, and check out this title!”
RM: You’re the dean of the Mayo Graduate School and have been since 2012 …
JM: It’s now called The Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Just so I don’t get in trouble.
RM: I’ve heard you don’t care about getting in trouble with Mayo …
JM: I don’t. But I don’t want my people to get in trouble. One of the reasons I came to Mayo is to not just run a research lab, it’s to be an educator. I love to work with kids in their 20s. I love the energy. They are in this really cool, turbulent time in their lives. Getting married. Getting divorced. Their first dog. Living away from home. Struggling. I love coaching them through that.
RM: Were you as good a coach with your daughters?
JM: Wow. I would like to think I learned from my daughters how to be a coach for my students.
RM: You’re the associate editor of the Nucleic Acids Research journal.
JM: I’m an associate editor. There are several.
RM: I still have your “50 Sexiest Nucleic Acids Researchers” issue.
JM: I haven’t seen that one.
RM: What’s your next cover?
JM: We did like five covers that I’m super proud of. The next one? I don’t know. It will probably be an aptamer that can find its way into the cell nucleus.
RM: That would have been my guess. You’re also the arts series producer at Autumn Ridge Church. Is that for the extra money?
JM: For the fame, actually. We’ve had great shows and it’s a dream come true. I led the committee that built that church, so it was an amazing act of insanity that a congregation would let a molecular biologist head a committee to build a 100,000-square-foot-campus on 50 acres. When we built Autumn Ridge, even though it’s built of brick, I imagined not a castle but a tent. A place where you can easily come in out of the rain, not a place where you needed to get across a drawbridge. Part of that, as a musician, was we said “Let’s make a space that we can share.” And they let that happen.
RM: You’re a musician. Best bassline ever?
JM: Oh, wow. It’s going to be a Queen song. It’s “Another One Bites The Dust.”
RM: That’s in my top 10. Though I would say Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” or Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.”
JM: Yeah. I’m a Queen guy.
RM: Best Queen song ever?
JM: “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Or “Killer Queen.”
RM: No. It’s “Somebody To Love.” Tell me about your wife.
JM: Laura is a social worker. She raised our kids as a professional homemaker, but she’s been working as a cancer educator at the Cancer Education Center at Mayo, which is an unbelievably honorable job. ... She is way, way mild mannered and generous and humble, unlike me.
RM: At Autumn Ridge, you have served as a lay teacher on the relationship between science, scripture, and spirituality. Give me one example of these things coming together.
JM: I give a talk about why Galileo, a famous scientist back in Shakespearean times, was such a hero to me. Galileo was a devout, faithful believer, but also believed that we can learn about what’s true by what we see, not just what we read. Galileo was one of the people who taught us that the truth around us isn’t only based on what has been revealed in the writing of the Bible, but what we are given to see. So Galileo was in trouble for saying “What I see looks like maybe the earth isn’t always the center of everything.” Of course, if you read the scripture literally, you may get from this the impression that earth is the center of everything. And we now know the earth is not the center of anything, except maybe the moon’s orbit basically. … It’s the beautiful realization that you can have faith in a beautiful, loving, transcendent, creative being who is doing things that are hard to explain in words. I love that idea. Galileo already fought this battle for us and showed us that it’s OK to understand that some of the Bible is poetry …
RM: You’re also a Mayo cancer patient?
JM: I’ve been a cancer patient my whole life. … working at Mayo you know people who can make a difference in the life of a person right now. It is the best place on the planet for health care. I think being a patient here has helped me appreciate it even more.
RM: You found out at 15?
JM: I could feel the pulse in my abdomen on one side. I had a sports physical. Passed it. I said to the doctor, “I’m just curious about this. I notice this thing.” Long story short. Had the big surgery. My parents went through hell. Recovered. Became a molecular biologist. The cancer inspired me in some ways.
RM: Wow. How did you and Laura meet?
JM: She and I fell in love in high school. Hello, Dolly was the high school musical my senior year. She was two years younger. She was a student director. I was Horace Vandergelder.
RM: Is that a major role?
JM: I’ll say it: It’s a big role. I’m not much of a singer but I love musicals. Laura helped coach me as we were practicing lines. ... The first time she remembers noticing me was at a rehearsal where, the night before, I had gotten drunk. In a series of circumstances that I really don’t quite remember, I had the wrong contacts in the wrong eyes. My eyes were a little bit bloodshot, and a deeper blue than usual. She thought I had these great-looking eyes. The night before, my high school academic bowl team, in my senior year, had been snuffed by a freshman team.
RM: Oh, that’ll lead you to underage drinking.
JM: We were drowning our sorrow. I’m not an advocate of drinking, but those antics did result in Laura thinking “He’s got some good-looking blue eyes.”
RM: Because the blue really stood out against the red of the bloodshot.