Dr. Stephen Floor

By Dr. Nik Tsotakos

Dr. Stephen Floor is an Assistant Professor at the School of Dentistry of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and he has been recognized with a number of honors and awards, including the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award in 2018. Dr. Floor has long been interested in post-transcriptional gene regulation, starting in the graduate school. Dr. Floor received his PhD from UCSF, working with Dr. John Gross. At the time, the Gross lab was working on how mRNA decapping is regulated at a molecular level. “This project was an exciting confluence of biophysics, biochemistry, and molecular biology,” Dr. Floor said, “and we connected conformational dynamics of proteins to their biological function”. Following his graduation and a post-doctoral fellowship with Dr. Jennifer Doudna (at the University of California Berkeley), he has remained in the RNA field, because “RNA science stays exciting, impacts so many areas of biology, and because the community of RNA researchers is so awesome.”

In his own lab, Dr. Floor is “developing approaches to generalize the measurement of the properties of single mRNA molecules in cells beyond microscopy.” He explained, “stochasticity is the rule in biology, and gene expression at levels other than translation occurs in bursts. Recent pioneering work using single-molecule microscopy has shown that the behavior of single mRNAs can differ substantially from the population average. If we can get our new approaches to work, we will be able to access new information about post-transcriptional gene regulation.”

But science also comes with a variety of challenges, and for Dr. Floor, those started before his career even started, when he was in middle school. He remembered, “a group of toxic upperclassmen who would relentlessly bully younger kids, especially the ones who cared about schoolwork – like me. The bullying was pretty severe, including physical threats and actions, public humiliation, theft, etc. It became clear that the way to be “cool” was to reject schoolwork, math, and my own intelligence. This was the start of a downward spiral that continued through high school and almost put me on a very different life path. The mentorship of a guidance counselor and the support of my parents, plus hating working in telemarketing, led me to apply to the University of Kansas, where I was fortunately admitted.” Once there, Dr. Adrian Melott and Dr. Greg Hackman helped guide him to where he is today. He continued, “my current greatest challenge is to extend the benefit of the doubt that enabled me to make it through troubled waters to other people who are just trying to find their place in the world like I was (and am).”

“Doing science means much more than the raw data that goes into a paper”

For junior scientsits, Dr. Floor said, “John [Gross] always says that you first have to define what success means to you.” He explained, “all answers are the right answer, because it’s your definition. Once you get some ideas about what success means, my best piece of advice is to find people who are in the position that looks like your definition of success and read about their stories, talk to them, and try to emulate what they did to get where they are.” Related advice is to choose who you work with, “which is at least as important as the project that you’re working on. Doing science means much more than the raw data that goes into a paper, so I encourage other scientists to think hard about that when choosing where to work.” Finally, his postdoctoral mentor always underlined the “importance of being a “closer.” Dr. Floor continued, “drop projects that you might love but aren’t going anywhere. Closing things out in science is more important than starting them, and in science that means publishing. So take that side project and see if you can turn it into something communicable and do it. The other side of the coin is, knowing when something isn’t worth your time and dropping it.”

Dr. Floor also thinks that Twitter is a great tool for science communication, adding, “I try to be (mostly) myself on twitter because I think it isn’t possible to separate science from society, or the science that we do from its implications, or the person from the scientist.” He encourages all scientists to be involved in science communication. “This can be as simple as talking about science with people in your life. Or it can be through conferences and journals. In that respect, scientific societies are key: when you join the RNA society, you help science move forward!”

And, he added, “there are so many good times at the RNA Society meetings—and the best of these are often on the dance floor!”

Dr. Floor’s favorite RNA is “the tmRNA from bacteria. Bacteria use tmRNAs to resolve stalled ribosomes. Such a cool fusion of two key RNAs in translation!” He is on Twitter as @stephenfloor.