Jun 13, 2020

The Liberation of RNA

In June of 2019, Brandon Ogbunu got on stage and told a story for The Story Collider, a podcast and live storytelling show. Starting when he was a senior in college being shook down by a couple cops, Brandon tells us about navigating his ups and downs of a career in science, his startling connection to scientific racism, and his battle against biology's central dogma. 

Brandon’s story was recorded by The Story Collider as part of the 2019 Evolution Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island. You can find the full episode and learn more about The Story Collider here.

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JAD ABUMRAD: Before we start I just want to let you know there's a moment or two of strong language in this story.




JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. This week we want to share a story that really caught our attention. It's a story told by this guy.


BRANDON OGBUNU: My name is Brandon Ogbunu. I'm an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University.


JAD: It's a story he told on stage for the podcast Story Collider, which is a live storytelling show. Huge thanks to them for letting us borrow this. It's a story that, you know, touches on all the things that we're all thinking about right now. Takes it into some new territory. Brandon started the story when he told it on stage with an incident that happened to him in college when he was living in DC.




BRANDON OGBUNU: Rule number one: When you see the lights at your back or in your eyes and they're unmistakable, stop moving. Raise your hands slowly from their side, five fingers extended so that they know that there's nothing in your hands. Stop. Wait for instructions. You see, you have to think about the police report. You don't want it to say that he lunged or he reached for something that looked like a weapon, or the mysterious, "He made a menacing gesture." "No, officer. I'm not carrying any weapons." That's rule number two: Use "Officer" early and often. Why? You have to let them know that you know the power dynamic. After all, they got the badge and the gun. You? You were just born with the wrong set of physical traits.


BRANDON OGBUNU: Officer number one stood with the gun loaded, pointed towards me, ready to go, ready to be a hero. Officer number two approached. "Are you carrying any drugs, sir?" Sir? I guess I respect that. "No, officer." After a thorough search -- and I mean thorough -- the interest turns to the contents of my backpack, a black JanSport that had some bad graffiti on the small pocket. I was a senior at Howard University, a chemistry and mathematics major at the time, and like most people at that stage my backpack told a lot about me. There was some moldy potato chips in a bag, some sketch pads and some notepads, copy of Source Magazine and a couple mixtapes. I mean real mixtapes, not the stuff that you guys talk about.




BRANDON OGBUNU: And much, much more. Officer number two had to sift through the contents, and I heard all the ruffling. Eventually, officer two emerged with an object of interest and slammed it on the hood of the car and under the flashlight it went. Lehninger, Nelson and Cox: Principles of Biochemistry, Second Edition. Officer two was persistent however, and raised the book and shook it out, trying to find the contraband. And officer two was successful. Down went several notecards that were placed in the chapter on Michaelis–Menten kinetics. Officer number two was persistent still and ruffled through the contents of the bag and emerged with another -- another item, little bit smaller. Slammed it on the hood of the car. A draft of my senior thesis, highly annotated, with the title The Liberation of RNA. Now in this thesis I argue ...


JAD: The story that you tell begins with the sort of oh-so-familiar pulled over by cops.




JAD: When was that, by the way?


BRANDON OGBUNU: Late fall of 2001.


JAD: Huh.


JAD: Producer Soren Wheeler and I ended up calling up Brandon, asking him a few questions about the story.


BRANDON OGBUNU: I mean, just to add a little bit of context this is around the time of the Amadou Diallo case.


JAD: Oh, wow.


BRANDON OGBUNU: In New York. It's like a couple years after that, probably. Interaction with law enforcement has been a part of my life since really, you know, right after early adolescence.


JAD: So the Liberation of RNA, this thesis that they find in your bag, what -- what kind of work were you doing at that point?


BRANDON OGBUNU: So I was a chemistry major in math. I studied math a lot. So I was math and chemistry, and I had joined Susan Gottesman's lab …


JAD: More on her in a second.


BRANDON OGBUNU: … in college. She had made this discovery of these RNA molecules that kind of regulated genes, and my work was focused on one of those small RNA molecules, these autonomously functioning RNA molecules that were responsible for switching genes on and off. And that was a pretty new discovery. RNA, we thought RNA was just this informational intermediate between DNA and protein, but I think in the '90s we learned that RNA actually does things in a cell. It can actually function like an enzyme. It's doing things in the cell. And now this is kind of common knowledge, but back then that was a pretty new discovery. This stuff is really active and is an important part of the way life functions across the biosphere.


JAD: So when you say liberate RNA, you mean let's give RNA its due.


BRANDON OGBUNU: That's right.


JAD: That it's not -- that it needs to be elevated.




BRANDON OGBUNU: We had historically put RNA in a box, but RNA was bigger than that.


JAD: And so you describe in your story that RNA was in a box. I wonder, did you see RNA as a kind of -- what's the -- what's the not dumb way to ask this? As a, like, analogue to your own life?


BRANDON OGBUNU: Oh, totally. Oh, totally.


JAD: Really?


BRANDON OGBUNU: Well, I mean I think -- I think I absolutely used my science as -- you know, I do my science biographically. I -- I -- in all of my science even now, I think I find a personal connection to the essence of the question, which is why I was writing a thesis called The Liberation of RNA. And as -- when I wrote about the liberation of RNA, there was nothing explicitly political in that. It was about RNA.


JAD: Right.


BRANDON OGBUNU: It was totally a biochemistry thesis. But nonetheless, I definitely saw that thread that, you know, Susan Gottesman kind of and colleagues had discovered this set of molecules that were -- that were kind of -- that kind of had expanded our appreciation of what was possible. And I kind of felt that was a little bit of a metaphor for my whole life at that point.


JAD: And did you feel like, I mean because you identified with RNA and, you know, the orthodoxy is DNA is everything, you are your genes, did you then have a adversarial relationship to DNA? Or is that ...?


BRANDON OGBUNU: No. I didn't have an adver -- I didn't have an adversarial relationship with DNA. I still love DNA, and I think DNA's, you know, one of the most -- one of the most -- I got no beef with DNA. DNA -- but I think ...


SOREN WHEELER: It's a great molecule.


BRANDON OGBUNU: Yeah, it's a great molecule. A lot of my best friends are DNA. But -- but I do -- from early, and at that point I was politically aware and scientifically aware. I was aware of things, like for example, like scientific racism. That was definitely something I was aware of. And I was definitely aware of the ways that DNA was weaponized in scientific racism. Even at that stage.


JAD: Yeah. Yeah. All right. So maybe we should circle back to Susan Gottesman, whose lab you're working in at that point.


BRANDON OGBUNU: I conducted this research in the laboratory of Susan Gottesman at the National Institutes of Health, to this day one of my truest scientific heroes. Both maybe the nicest and the smartest person I've ever had the pleasure of meeting let alone working with. She might have stood 5'3", but she towered over the field. Her work used bacterial genetics to understand kind of basic questions in bacterial physiology. And recently, she had discovered several small RNAs in bacterial and in E. coli, and I focused a lot of my work in my lab on that. I owed a lot to Dr. Gottesman. She saw talent in me before I did. She believed in me and gave me an opportunity, and a lot of the greatness of Dr. Gottesman came out in my failures. I was coming from chemistry where, like, yeah, you might have an explosion, but there was no contamination, you know? Right? And so I -- I had fairly, fairly heavy hands in the laboratory, and she would say things like, "You being smart is not going to make a correct bacterial growth curve, Brandon." Or even better, "Yeah, I think you'll be a good theoretician one day."




BRANDON OGBUNU: But I owed everything to Dr. Gottesman. I was young and naive at the time, but I understood that I was working for somebody very special, and I was honored to be connected to her. 15 or so years later …


JAD: So you jump forward 15 years. Can you, before we get to that next scene, connect the dots? Who -- who were you in the interim?


BRANDON OGBUNU: So after leaving Susan's lab, I actually did a Fulbright in Kenya where I studied malaria.


JAD: Oh.




BRANDON OGBUNU: You know, I come back, I enter medical school at Yale.


JAD: Wow.


BRANDON OGBUNU: Then I switched into a PhD program, where I did my PhD in virus evolution at Yale, and I haven't looked back. So I'm a -- at this point I'm a professor.


BRANDON OGBUNU: I'm sitting on a sectional couch in front of a 60-inch HDTV 4K. That I own. It's January, 2019. I got olive tapenade hummus, cauliflower chips, and a local root beer. And I'm tuned in to watch a movie: PBS American Masters, Decoding Watson. This documentary was about James Watson. Now James Watson's been an asshole for decades, right? Hold on. Hold on.




JAD: We should probably say that James Watson is part of the duo that discovered the double helix structure of DNA. He has made racist comments at several points during his career and gotten in trouble for it.


BRANDON OGBUNU: And presumably I was tuning in because, you know, this is a good series, The Decoding -- the Masters, American Masters have been good. And you can learn, there's always something interesting to learn about people. But really, I confess that I was tuning in kind of like most people tune in when they're watching boxing. You can say, "Well, I want to see a match of styles," but you want to see a knockout, right? You -- you want to see something kind of dramatic happen. And James Watson delivered.


JAD: We'll pick up the story right here after the break.

JAD: Jad. Radiolab. Back to Brandon and the story he told on stage and also talked to Soren and I about afterwards. Where we left off with the story it was 2019, Brandon was a professor at Brown, sitting on his couch watching a documentary about James Watson, the guy who is sometimes given credit as co-discovering the double-helix structure of DNA, one of the biggest discoveries in the history of science. As he was watching, Brandon was expecting James Watson, as he is wont to do, to say some outrageous things.


BRANDON OGBUNU: And James Watson delivered. Doubling down on his 2007 comments where he said, "Though I hoped people are equal, people who have to deal with Black employees don't believe this to be true." He had further things to say about Black people and white people, differences he attributed to genetics. My visible demeanor oscillated between kind of horrified shuddering and kind of uncomfortable laughter. But inside I was hurting.


BRANDON OGBUNU: So I had been keeping up with James Watson through the years, just because I had read all the stuff, I had read his biography. I knew a lot about him. I think what was jarring about that experience for me was everything else I had read that he said. So I had actually never seen him say any of these troubling things before. I was -- it really made my skin crawl.


JAD: Hmm.


BRANDON OGBUNU: And it be -- and it became personal in an odd way when I heard him say it.


BRANDON OGBUNU: Interestingly enough however, those comments were not the most notable part of that documentary film. What I noticed was several notable female, women scientists were in the film and had passed through his lab at various points and were talking. Famous people. And I was like, "Wow, this is very interesting given Watson's similarly problematic past when it comes to gender." So I said, "That doesn't quite fit my narrative of him. That's pretty interesting." And to his credit, none of the women scientists said that working for him that the environment was particularly toxic. They kind of had interesting things to say about his personality, but I found that to be very, very interesting. So then the question emerged in my head. "I wonder how many other famous women scientists worked for James Watson?" I took my inquiry to Google.


BRANDON OGBUNU: James Watson, academic family tree. Now, you know, there are -- right, there are websites dedicated to being able to track genealogy academically the same way you do with your family. And there's a site AcademicFamilyTree.org, I believe. I click on it. At the top of the page, one of those classical James Watson photos with the insufferable smile and the bad hairline, right? My eyes went down the page and it said, "Children." And the first name in the children's section, Susan Gottesman, research assistant. Now my response was in my mother tongue, a highly technical language. "Get the fuck out of here!" Wait. Can't be true, all right? But it was true. There was no section that read "Grandchildren," because if there was -- and there was no section because his grandchildren likely number in the thousands at this point. But if there was, one of them would have been an evolutionary systems biologist at Brown University who likes long walks in the park and open world video games, whose mother experienced the Jim Crow South and whose great-grandmother was born a slave.


JAD: When you -- when you saw that you were only one person away from him, what did you -- how did that compute?


BRANDON OGBUNU: Well, a couple things. He -- he said these racist things. I bet he didn't think, you know, kids from public housing were gonna end up being his -- you know, being in his pedigree.


JAD: Yes. Yes.


BRANDON OGBUNU: And who have the views that I have, and who promote the things that I promote in science and who say the things that I say and hold my views. Here I am eating my olive tapenade hummus on my comfortable couch watching my nice television, and I'm James Watson's grandson and he can't do nothing about it.


JAD: [laughs]


BRANDON OGBUNU: And I got my whole -- and I got a whole career in front of me where I'm gonna make a -- I'm gonna embarrass those kind of ideas. And so it -- it caused a lot of reflection.


BRANDON OGBUNU: But what are academic connections anyway, really? Like, I don't know him, I hope I never know him. The connection is kind of nebulous and tenuous in these types of ways that kind of don't matter, right? But the connection between me and James Watson is about more than the profession. And the connection between all of us and James Watson is about more than science. James Watson was officers number one and number two. James Watson is why you feel unwelcome in your job. James Watson makes you feel like an impostor. And more broadly, James Watson tells people they're illegal. James Watson separates families. James Watson puts children in cages. James Watson, my academic grandfather.


BRANDON OGBUNU: The contents of my backpack was spread all over the police car at this point, the hood of the police car at this point. All of a sudden number one and number two looked at each other. What it looked like, "What the hell do we do now?" Eventually, officer number one said, "You can get your things and go." Now this was supposed to be humiliating. Here I am minding my business, and I have to stop and put all my things back into the bag. But sometimes resistance is best dealt quietly. And so I figured out a way to make this work for me. I took my sweet ass time putting my materials back into that bag. One by one. And with it I was saying two things. A) Them hands y'all got on them guns could help me put these things back in this bag; and B) The things I'm putting in this bag, the ideas they contain, some mine, some from others, are valuable. I have people in the world who love me. I have dreams of one day being a great professor. And I had to be at work in the morning in the Gottesman lab. As I was completing the process of putting the things in my bag, I looked at the last item, that thesis, The Liberation of RNA, and I put it in the bag and zipped it. I didn't miss the opportunity for one last slam dunk. I turned my head to the officers said, "Have a good night." I slung the JanSport around my shoulders. I eased into a deep New York strut on the road to a career in science, a very rugged fitness landscape full of peaks and valleys, successes and failures, friends and enemies, Susan Gottesmans and James Watsons. Thank you.




JAD: Have you ever talked to Susan Gottesman about this and said, "Hey, I saw on this website and what was that --" like, had you ever break -- broached it with her?


BRANDON OGBUNU: So unfortunately, I haven't. But I think -- I think you might be interested to hear why.


JAD: Sure.


BRANDON OGBUNU: In some ways. In some ways, that would be making an assumption that he's, like, significant to her.


JAD: Mm.




JAD: Mm-hmm.


BRANDON OGBUNU: Like, she's built this life and career that I mean, I don't know him personally, but I've read a lot of his work. I mean, she's smarter than he is, right? I mean no -- I think that -- I'm confident saying that. You know, in terms of obviously the size of his discoveries are gigantic and enormous, but you know what I'm saying? But the, you know, the work, the cleverness and the way she's understand -- understands nature in which she's done in all these multiple ways, I think is more impressive. In some ways I'm kind of like ...


SOREN: As if, like, maybe the fact that ...


BRANDON OGBUNU: ... it's condescending in some ways.


SOREN: Yeah, like if -- almost like the fact that she worked for or with him.


BRANDON OGBUNU: I mean, it matters in some way.


SOREN: Right. That was, like, the most -- like, an impressive thing about her.


BRANDON OGBUNU: Important thing of her career. It's just not -- it's just not at all. And that's why she didn't -- part of me was like, "Oh, I wonder why she didn't mention it?" She didn't mention it because it didn't matter to her.


JAD: I'm tempted to make a connection between that decision not to talk to her about him, and you slowly putting the papers back in your bag.




JAD: Do you see a connection there?


BRANDON OGBUNU: I mean, I think -- I think -- I think, you know, it's not -- that's not a connection that I actively made at the time, but I think it -- it's a theme with how resistance works. And when you are dealing with something uncomfortable with life, and this is -- this transcends the Black experience, this -- when you're dealing with something uncomfortable in life that you can't do anything about, and you can't do anything about who your family is, academic or other, and in this situation, I can't do anything about the fact that I'd been -- right -- I'd been stopped and I'm dealing with this racial profiling incident, you look for little ways, and I think you're right. I think in not having a coffee conversation about him in a weird way, like, I honored her more. Sometimes the most revolutionary thing or the most subversive thing you can do, is just focus on the right things in life.


JAD: Yeah.


BRANDON OGBUNU: That's sometimes really, really it. And I think this goes back to something that Toni Morr -- Toni Morrison, one of her many myriad of incredible quotes talked about the function of racism is to distract, right? That's really what it does. I mean, it just -- it just kind of like it takes your eye off of -- it makes you do things that you shouldn't be, you know, doing. You -- you want to prove people wrong. You want to prove you have a language, you want to prove that you're smart, and you do -- and -- right -- it's so -- it's such -- it's so chillingly, you know, true that sometimes the most powerful thing you can just do is be like, you know, be aware of what the situation is, but not give it that power over you and the things that matter most.


JAD: Huge, huge thanks to Brandon Ogbunu for sharing his story with us and with Story Collider. His story was recorded last June as part of a Story Collider show at the 2019 Evolution Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island. Story Collider is a non-profit group that puts on live storytelling events and also puts out a podcast. Thank you to Story Collider's Erin Barker and Liz Neeley for letting us play Brandon's story. You can find out more about Story Collider at storycollider.org, and you can subscribe to their podcast through Apple or wherever you get your podcasts from.


JAD: In this moment we're thinking a lot about who we are listening to, and we're very proud to have some shows made my our colleagues at WNYC studios that are having the kind of conversations we all need right now. So we'd encourage you to check out shows like Come Through with Rebecca Carroll, and United States of Anxiety. You can find out more about those shows on our website, Radiolab.org or wnycstudios.org, or of course you can just download them from Apple or Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts from. I'm Jad Abumrad. Thanks for listening.


[ERIN: Hi, this is Erin Skornya calling from Jefferson City, Missouri. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O’Donnell, Tad Davis, and Russell Gragg. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]


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