Keeping it all in the family

Couple balance personal life with running NIH lab

February 10, 2006|By JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF | JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF,SUN REPORTER

HER HUSBAND BLUSHES — In a sterile office in a nondescript East Baltimore building where scientists conduct cutting-edge genetic research, Joan E. Bailey-Wilson takes out a wedding album and leafs through the photos.

Her husband blushes - a personal moment in an impersonal place where top scientists sort out the causes of deadly diseases. Alexander "Alec" F. Wilson's face reddens, and he pleads, "Let's put that away."

For most of their three decades together, the Wilsons have struck an unusual balance between their private and public lives. Unlike many working couples, Alec and Joan haven't simply had two careers - they have had two careers working together.

Smitten as seniors in college, they attended the same graduate school. Newly married, they shared research fellowships at Louisiana State University. Raising children, they joined the National Institutes of Health, the federal medical research agency based in Bethesda.

Now they jointly manage the same NIH laboratory in the agency's Baltimore research wing - and sometimes finish each other's thoughts.

"Our staff likes to joke that it's a mom-and-pop operation," Alec says.

"And if they ask Mom and she says, `No,' and then they go to Dad - they are in big trouble," Joan adds.

"Fortunately," Alec says jokingly, "our staff isn't as sophisticated as our kids."

At a government agency whose serious business includes sequencing the human genome and developing an anthrax vaccine, the Wilsons' loving playfulness is a reminder that high-powered research does not require the single-minded devotion of a monk.

"Scientists do have a social life," says Dr. Michael Gottesman, who oversees in-house research at NIH. Still, the Wilsons are an exception. Of the 1,200 scientists running laboratories at the federal agency, Gottesman says, they are the only married couple.

Alec, 53, and Joan, 52, direct 20 researchers in an inherited disease lab on the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus. They have effectively run the office for much of the decade they have been here, but weren't formally appointed supervisors until last month.

NIH doesn't bar married couples from working at the agency - and many do, including Gottesman and his wife. But nepotism rules forbid one spouse from directly supervising another, and the agency must hire each separately, on his or her merits. So practically speaking, nearly all conduct their work separately.

But that may change. While scientists have historically taken their measure by reviewing individual accomplishments, research is beginning to span disciplines that range from biology to statistics. Today, scientists talk more about teamwork and group projects.

"In that sense, the Wilsons may be on the leading edge of a trend," Gottesman says.

Alec and Joan work in a branch of medical research that relies on cross-disciplinary work. They study how genes and other factors interact to produce diseases - statistical genetics, they call it.

They don't directly study the genes involved in diseases, but families with a history of disease. Using statistical analysis, the couple look for patterns explaining who among the family members winds up acquiring a disease - and why.

Although their research is similar in nature, they keep their lines of inquiry distinct. Alec is looking at the causes of obesity, Joan at lung cancer.

As close as they are, the differences keep their day jobs largely discrete. They don't say goodbye in the morning, and they don't see that much of each other at the office or even bump into each other in the hall.

For awhile, they had lunch together at least once a week, but no longer. Their days are too full.

They were so used to working independently that they once discovered at the last minute that they were both leaving town for a meeting on the same day. Fortunately, they could tap a graduate student to watch their kids. Now, even though the children are 20 and 16, they have agreed to warn each other about trips some time before departing.

Their management style is similarly atomistic.

"I can go over to Joan and say, `Where is your husband?' But other than that, they keep their powers separate," says Gloria Dunnigan, the longtime office manager.

Dinner at their home in Phoenix may be their first opportunity all day to chat at length - the only quality time to discuss the day's developments, or decide whom to hire, or review the budget, or divvy up personnel evaluations.

"Sometimes I'll send him an e-mail, just to remind him we have a decision to make," Joan says.

"Pretty ridiculous when you consider our offices are 25 feet apart," Alec says.

Both grew up in the Baltimore area: Alec in Towson and Joan in the city and then the Hereford section of Baltimore County. Both their mothers were schoolteachers. Both scientists went to Western Maryland College, where they gravitated toward genetics.

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