When you walk out of the elevator and into Leroy Hood's molecular biology lab on the Caltech campus in Pasadena, you don't get any particular sense of electricity in the work spaces or tension in the halls. Despite the profusion of centrifuges, tissue cultures and microscopes, the atmosphere seems so drowsily low-key that the place could easily be a junior college biology lab instead of one of the most respected, successful and, in some circles, feared facilities in the country.
The reason it's so regarded is the size and productivity of Leroy Hood's lab. Unlike most labs, which at best have eight or 10 workers who at best might publish 5 to 10 papers a year, Hood has 65 people who put out 30 to 40 papers a year (Hood himself has published more than 250). Working in some instances with medical research centers, they've done award-winning work in the molecular biology of the immune system. They've discovered a new diagnostic tool and a potentially much more effective and safe vaccine for Hepatitis B, which affects about 200 million people worldwide and is a leading cause of liver cancer. They've discovered a new and hitherto unsuspected class of renegade proteins called prions, which may lead to an understanding of the causes of such degenerative disorders as Alzheimer's disease. They've come up with a simple blood test for diagnosing T-cell leukemia and have defined the process by which cancer genes transform normal cells into cancerous tumors. Most important, perhaps, they've developed four new microchemical instruments that, by allowing the workers to analyze and synthesize genes and proteins, have opened up whole new worlds of research.
Because the Hood lab is so large and formidable (the facility runs 24 hours a day), a lab staffer merely has to mention at a conference that the lab is working on a project and tremors race through the field. "The level of fear that people go through is really quite amazing," says Mitchell Kronenberg, a postdoctoral fellow who's worked with Hood for the last nine years. Because of the lab's size, "people from the outside see us as a big army, organized to scorch the earth. In fact, it's more like an amoeba, disorganized and moving in a lot of different directions."
But people don't know that, he says. When he was out looking for a teaching job, "people would always say: 'Well, how can you compete with Lee Hood's lab?' I'd say: 'Well, you know, I'm from that lab, and I know that in most cases you're really competing with one or two "postdocs" and a graduate student.' "
Some labs live in such terror that the Hood lab will beat them to publication, Kronenberg says, that their research papers are professionally embarrassing. Kronenberg says he saw one paper on which the authors couldn't have spent more than three days, instead of the usual two weeks or more. There were a dozen major spelling errors and wrong names, and the authors wrote things like "we have found 14 cases" and then listed only 13. "It was clear that these guys must have been scared to death of us, and they just felt they had to get it out."
In another instance, Kronenberg says, a young researcher at a recent major conference began a talk on the subject of T-cell receptors with the remark that he'd had a discussion with Leroy Hood "and we agreed that we would use his nomenclature for the variable genes of the T-cell receptor"--whereupon everyone in the room started to laugh. The feeling was, how could anyone just starting out possibly have had an equal discussion with the eminent Lee Hood?
In contrast to his formidable reputation, Hood, in person, is a clean-cut, soft-spoken molecular biologist (he also has an MD) who wears khaki shorts and short-sleeve plaid shirts to work and whose idea of a big night on the town is dinner in a sushi bar. He grew up in Shelby, Mont., surrounded by 100,000-acre wheat farms. In high school, Hood blossomed, quarterbacking the football team (undefeated in Hood's last 3 1/2 years), acting in school plays, performing in the band, competing on the debating team and editing the yearbook. When, at the end of his high school career, he became the first Westinghouse Science Talent winner from Montana, 500 people--a quarter of the town's population--showed up at the train station to see him off to Washington.
Although Hood has come a long way since he got on that train, in many respects, friends say, he still acts like that small-town Montana boy, alternating the same four plaid shirts day after day at the lab, dining at the same three Pasadena restaurants and, most of all, acting like "a 47-year-old Boy Scout"--which is to say eager, energetic and unfailingly enthusiastic about science. "I can't imagine a better life than what I'm doing," Hood says. "We're right at the frontier of a series of different fields. It's an incredibly exciting life."