Love of science and exemplary leadership define Mason’s tenure at NIEHS
By Jeffrey Stumpf
After a 34-year career at the bench, James “Jim” Mason, Ph.D., will step away from his role as leader of the Drosophila Chromosome Structure Group. Known for his industrious nature and collegiality, Mason plans to be active in science outreach in rural North Carolina.
NIEHS hired Mason in 1978 as a staff fellow in the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics (LMG) to test chemicals for mutagenicity using the fruitfly, Drosophila melanogaster. In addition, NIEHS wanted to research the basic biology of mutagenesis and turned to Mason to study the mu2 mutant that exhibited increased mutations and sensitivity to irradiation.
“When Jim moved to NIEHS, he became our resident expert on the classical and molecular genetics of the mutation process in whole animals,” commented Jan Drake, Ph.D., founding chief of LMG.
What was particularly interesting about the mu2 mutants was that DNA breaks were not repaired, as in normal cells, but rather were processed as if they were the end of the chromosomes, called telomeres. The characterization of mu2 began a long-standing interest in regulation of telomeres and led to current studies on mutants with abnormally long telomeres. Mason's discoveries about Drosophila telomeres led to his election by his peers as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2010.
Of flies and men
While new technologies have emerged and attracted attention away from using model systems like Drosophila, Mason is unwavering about the importance of studying fruitfly genetics.
“How do you make the connection between human health and human genome?” Mason asked rhetorically. “You need an understanding to help bridge that gap and, in many cases, that understanding comes from the use of model organisms.”
Besides the scientific merit of studying Drosophila, Mason believes that the overwhelmingly collaborative culture of fruitfly geneticists models proper behavior for today’s scientists. Sharing reagents and ideas freely is paramount to Mason’s philosophy, which did not escape the notice of his trainees.
“Whether the request was from a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher, Jim goes out of his way to explain the correct way of doing fly genetics and using the right controls,” explained former trainee Raghuvar Dronamraju, Ph.D. “He is a true geneticist to the core.”
Inspired by his still active nonagenarian postdoctoral advisor, National Academy of Sciences member and fellow fly geneticist, Melvin Green, Ph.D., Mason works at the bench every day. “Being in the lab is why I became a scientist.” Mason remarked. “And I will continue to do science when there are no longer any postdocs or technicians around.”
Leading promotions of biologists for two decades
What began as a three-year cycle, turned into an eighteen year commitment for Mason to lead the committee on promotion (COP3) for senior technical staff. Congruent with his nature of serving his co-workers, Mason transformed a promotions process with vague criteria into the present form with specific benchmarks. These important changes streamline promotions and clarify when promotions can be granted.
“I like the idea that I helped further people’s careers by making a fairer process that is easier to understand,” Mason said.
From next generation sequencing to next generation mentorship
From his years on, and leading, the Diversity Council, to his philosophy of sharing science, it is not surprising that Mason would be interested in passing his devotion to science on to the next generation. Mason plans to develop science projects for middle and high schools in rural, underserved communities, and to focus on the science process instead of just the facts.
“People learn by doing, not sitting in a chair listening to lectures. But most classrooms are the latter and not the former,” Mason discussed. “I want to get people out of their seats and let them do experiments, so that they can develop their own ideas and discuss them.”
(Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., is a research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)
Former lab members share fond memories of Jim Mason
“He believes that ‘fly pushing’ can answer many questions where modern methodologies fail.” — Dronamraju, former visiting fellow
“Jim was always available to discuss science. He encouraged me to attend meetings and present my work.” — Hemakumara Mutra, Ph.D., visiting fellow
“His dedication and total commitment to science is impressive. Yet, outside of work, he has a normal family life with his children and grandchildren and other social activities. He has a very balanced life.” — Dave Brar, biologist
“I learned a lot from him and will never forget working in the Drosophila Chromosome Structure Group under the direction of Jim Mason. He would always say, ‘It is important to do good research. You always want someone to be able to duplicate your results, just as you have presented them.’” — Larry Champion, former biologist