The Backstory

Microbe mentoring

The recipe for success includes independence, a gentle shove and a good stiff drink

To get to associate professor Denise Monack’s office, you walk through emeritus professor Stanley Falkow’s. “Which I finagled,” Monack says.

Stanley Falkow thought his longtime lab manager would be happier if she got her PhD. Denise Monack, now an associate professor, says "he's 100 percent right."

Not every faculty member would want her lifelong mentor sitting outside her door. But Monack, PhD, and Falkow, PhD, are no ordinary pair.

In 1984, Monack was fresh out of college at UC-Davis when she applied for a technician position in Falkow’s lab in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. “I had no clue how famous he was,” she says. The legendary microbe hunter posed two questions: Could she handle profanity? Could she work independently? Yes to both, Monack said.

For the next 14 years, Monack managed Falkow’s lab and conducted her own research experiments, developing an animal model for whooping cough and investigating host cells’ proclivity to commit suicide rather than be infected with salmonella.

“We had to learn more and more about the biology of animal cells and human cells, and it was a difficult transition but we made it,” says Falkow, the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professor in Cancer Research, Emeritus. “And in no small measure thanks to her, because she was the common denominator through all these generations of students, and she was the giver of lore to the lab. It got to the point where if you wanted to know something, you asked Denise.”

That said, Falkow was concerned about his lab manager’s future. “She was able to publish, but she was stuck here and there was no way for her to advance in the system,” he says. “She was basically giving away a lot of her knowledge and her skill to other people.”

It was time for what Falkow calls a “gentle shove.” As Monack remembers it, “He said, ‘You know, Denise, I really think you, in the future, would be happiest if you got your PhD. When I go to the big petri dish in the sky, it’s going to be hard for you to find another position where you have the freedom that you’re used to, and you might be miserable.’ And I thought about this, and I realized, he’s 100 percent right.”

Monack got her PhD at Stanford and was interviewing for positions around the Bay Area when Falkow was diagnosed with a leukemia precursor. She stayed at Stanford to manage his lab as he prepared to retire, and later joined the faculty.

The longtime collaborators distanced themselves until Monack had tenure. Monack worked on Francisella tularensis, a pathogen Falkow had never studied; Falkow decided never to publish with Monack again. “I had to stay away and she needed me to stay away,” Falkow says.

“Are the rest of the faculty going to think this is really Stanley’s lab and Denise is the puppet?” Monack remembers wondering. “It all worked out in the end, but it was not trivial.”

As their relationship transitioned from supervisor-employee to adviser-doctoral student to a pair of colleagues, Falkow added one last key ingredient. After Monack gave a presentation at a conference in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, Falkow bought her a congratulatory beverage. “Ever since then, I’ve become a connoisseur of single-malt whiskeys,” says Monack. “And whenever I think I’ve tried one that he’s never tried, I’m wrong. But last week I found out there is one I love and he’s never tried it. So I bought him a bottle of that for his birthday.” Says Falkow, “She takes care of the old man in my declining years.”

Kathy Zonana is associate editor of Stanford Medicine magazine. Email her at kathyz@stanford.edu.

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