Dr. Kevan M. Shokat is Professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California San Francisco, Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of California Berkeley, and an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He received his B.A in chemistry from Reed College and his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. Afterwards, he received a Life Sciences Research Foundation Fellowship to conduct postdoctoral research at Stanford University, and he served on the faculty at Princeton University before joining the faculty at his current institutions. Kevan has received numerous awards and honors over the course of his career, including the 2023 Sjöberg Prize from the The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the 2023 National Academy of Sciences Award for Scientific Discovery, the 2023 Howard Vollum Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Science and Technology from his alma mater Reed College, the 2022 American Association for Cancer Research’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Chemistry in Cancer Research, and many others. He was also named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences, a Searle Scholar, a Cottrell Scholar, a Glaxo-Wellcome Scholar in Organic Chemistry, and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow. In addition, Kevan is an elected Member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Member of the National Academy of Medicine, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In our interview, he shares more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (3:02)
When he’s not working, Kevan enjoys spending time with family, cycling with his friends, getting exercise, being out in nature, and reading biographies of scientists.
The Scientific Side (4:08)
Kevan’s lab uses approaches from chemistry to address unsolved challenges and opportunities for discovery in biology and medicine. His goal is to apply chemistry to biology in the most impactful, interesting, and meaningful ways while pursuing his curiosity. The lab has been investigating key signaling proteins in diseases such as cancer to develop new treatments.
A Dose of Motivation (5:07)
“You did the hardest thing — you got on the bike!” – Kevan’s Peloton Instructor.
Often, getting moving and being in the room is the hardest part.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (8:13)
Kevan was a curious kid, and he often thought about the origins of life and what might have been the first living thing. In high school, he became interested in chemistry and biology through his classes. During college, Kevan had fantastic professors, and he got even more excited about research and the possibility of making new discoveries. As graduation approached, Kevan applied to both MD/PhD and PhD programs. Though Kevan was initially disappointed when he wasn’t accepted into the MD/PhD programs, getting a PhD and focusing on research turned out to be the best fit for his interests.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (21:21)
During the first four years of graduate school, Kevan worked really hard, but none of his projects were getting to the point where he had something that would lead to a publication. Those four years went by, and the frequent failures didn’t bother him. He just kept working and believing that the next experiment would work. At that point, Kevan’s advisor started to get worried. Kevan realized that it was important to take a step back and think strategically about his career and how he was going to make it through graduate school. Fortunately, one of the postdocs in the lab had a few projects in process when they were getting ready to leave the lab. Kevan was able to pick up the projects to wrap them up, and every one of those projects worked, allowing him to piece together his dissertation.
A Shining Success! (24:01)
The earliest project in Kevan’s lab involved engineering protein kinases, and it was one of his most memorable successes. The first time they successfully ran the experiment and saw the expected activity, it was a thrill for Kevan and the trainees working on the project. And then for two months, they were not able to replicate the findings. This was an incredibly nerve-wracking time. Fortunately, a serendipitous series of events turned things around. Kevan’s student asked if he could put the cells they were working on in the refrigerator overnight and finish the experiment the next day because he wanted to watch an event in the summer Olympics that was going to be broadcasted that evening. Kevan agreed since they had worked many late nights over the past two months. When they resumed the experiment the next day, they successfully replicated the original findings. It turned out that waiting overnight was critical for giving the protein they were working on enough time to fold correctly. For two months, they had been moving too fast to allow this step to occur, and this was a major breakthrough.
Book Recommendations (3:31)
The Brain in Search of Itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the Story of the Neuron by Benjamin Ehrlich
Most Treasured Travel (27:51)
One of Kevan’s most enjoyable scientific travel experiences was a trip to Erice in Sicily. About 15 years ago, there was a structural biology meeting in Erice, and it was remarkable to stroll down the cobblestone walkways in this Medieval mountaintop town. The meeting was excellent, and the conversations he had there led to successful recruitment of students to his lab, including a talented student who brought crystallography methods to Kevan’s lab. Now they are able to do their own crystallography, and this was critical for finding a previously undiscovered pocket in a cell signaling molecule that became a successful drug target for lung cancer. Without that fateful meeting in Erice, Kevan may not have met the student, learned these methods, and made this discovery.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (30:25)
It is easy to get very absorbed in the work you are doing, but Kevan has made it a priority to make a conscious effort to engage with people more. This started during the pandemic where it was really quiet on campus. Whenever you happened to see someone, it was natural to stop and say hello because they were in many cases the first person you saw all day. Now the campus is back to normal, but Kevan still tries to pause his thoughts to smile and connect with people. Everyone contributes so much to success in science, including his lab members, facility staff, building security, custodians, and others. Taking time to acknowledge people can help build a happy and supportive environment.
Advice For Us All (34:54)
Follow your gut. Your gut and intuition can be important engines for discovery. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions and challenge assumptions. This is how we communicate and find the missing pieces to solve big problems in science. Force yourself to ask a question, even if it feels uncomfortable at first.
Kevan’s research group is focused on the discovery of new small molecule tools and drug candidates targeting protein/lipid kinases, GTPases, and RNA helicases. His laboratory utilizes the tools of synthetic organic chemistry, protein engineering, structural biology, biochemistry, and cell biology. He was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences (2010), the National Academy of Medicine (2011), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2011). In 2023 he was awarded the Vollum Prize from Reed College, the National Academy of Sciences Award for Scientific Discovery and the Sjöberg Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for ‘discoveries that enable the inhibition of mutated K-Ras in cancer treatment’. He has commercialized discoveries from his laboratory through co-founding several biotechnology companies including Intellikine, Araxes, Wellspring Biosciences, Kura Oncology, eFFECTOR Therapeutics, Mitokinin, Revolution Medicines, Erasca, and Kumquat Biosciences.
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by LAMPIRE Biological Laboratories.