Embracing the Joy of Science: Spotlight on Paul Turner

Sept. 7, 2023

Paul Turner, Ph.D.
Paul Turner, Ph.D.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
Throughout his career, Paul Turner, Ph.D., has been intentional about holding onto the delight and privilege of science—a reminder that not only guides his own work, but also the students that he mentors. “[Scientists] explore the natural world through science and microbiology, and it is so wonderful. I would never want to give that up,” he said. From a childhood immersed in the natural world to a groundbreaking career in microbiology and virology, Turner exemplifies the transformative effects of determination, passion and a relentless pursuit of the joy that comes with scientific curiosity and utilizing science to help others. 

Turner, the Rachel Carson Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University and microbiology faculty member at Yale School of Medicine, began his scientific journey with a profound love for the living world. As a child, he often frequented local zoos, read Encyclopedia of Life picture books and explored nearby forests. Turner found solace and wonder in these activities and appreciates the time he spent as a child marveling at flora and fauna with peers from diverse backgrounds who “were all kinds of explorers.” 

Traversing the great outdoors and exploring woods and open spaces gave Turner a sense of freedom and allowed him to be himself. Visiting zoos left an indelible mark on his mind, inspiring his love for visible organisms and fostering a fascination with the intricacies of life. In a time with far more limited options on television, shows like “Wild Kingdom” also ignited his admiration for professionals who explored the natural world. “In some ways, I'm still a little bit surprised that I'm a microbiologist. I grew up loving visible biology and large organisms,” he reflected.

Turner's academic journey began as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, where he initially leaned toward bioengineering. “My older brother was doing well in his engineering studies, and I wanted to bridge my interest in biology and the life sciences with my view of engineering as a potential career...I was full of ideas but was not clear of the direction I needed to go," he said. 

In time, Turner decided to change his major to biology, embracing the allure of the discipline as a “more open-ended exploration.” “The thing that I learned as an undergraduate is that science and engineering are different. Engineering is an awesome way to solve problems, whereas science is figuring out how the world works. I knew that engineering was an excellent way to build a career, but I finally reflected and said to myself, ‘Wait a minute, what am I really interested in?’"

Turner felt he “had to make up for lost time” because “[college] is expensive, and I did not want to become overly financially burdensome to my family. Completing my studies on time—in 4 years—was something my family wanted me to do, and I wanted to achieve this as well.” As a result, Turner did not have any research experience as an undergraduate. “I was busy. I was doing work-study in dining and laundry services, and this limited my opportunities to do other things," he said. 

Yet, Turner needed a laboratory course to graduate with his B.S., and the only available option was in microbiology. “I ended up taking a microbiology lab course at the medical school, and I fell in love with it,” he recalled. In the invisible world of microorganisms, Turner found a space to grapple with the unknown. “I just kind of geeked out about a whole segment of biological diversity that had been invisible to me and had [now] been revealed.”

After completing his studies at the University of Rochester, Turner began his graduate program at the University of California, Irvine. Under the mentorship of Richard E. Lenski, Ph.D., the Hannah Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University (Lenski relocated his laboratory from the University of California, Irvine to Michigan State University), Turner delved into the microbial world's “power to solve problems,” studying “bacteria and their plasmids, using them as models to study general questions in host parasite interactions."

This was an exciting time for Turner because in the late 1980s and early 1990s, some of the work of Roy Anderson and Bob May (experts in epidemiology) in the U.K. was gaining attention for utilizing mathematical equations to better understand and characterize disease systems, dynamics and evolution.

The emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, particularly in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, shifted Turner’s focus to virology and sparked a deep fascination with pandemics. “Not only was this mysterious thing happening and more information coming to light in nearby Los Angeles, but there was also a student in our graduate program who became infected with HIV and passed away within 6 to 8 months." Turner explained that his colleague’s passing reminded him that his "ultimate goal of basic research is, ideally, to have some applied significance.”

This experience led Turner to explore the dynamics of viruses and their interactions with hosts and other viruses. “I started to appreciate more of the genetic variation that separates different variants [of viruses] within a population, and how some of them could be more successful than others,” he explained. This interest led Turner to his first postdoctoral position at the University of Maryland, studying virus co-infection.

From there, Turner navigated from studying mosquito-borne viruses with Santiago Elena, Ph.D., an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute, to investigating herpes viruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Within the laboratory, Turner “examined the differences between virus specialization on a new host as it emerges versus virus generalization as it emerges on a new host.” Since 2001, his research at Yale has focused on virus interactions, emergence and, now, the potential for viruses to solve problems. His insights have paved the way for understanding the probabilities and mechanisms of viral emergence.

Leveraging his diverse background in virology and lessons learned throughout his career, Turner and his team are at the forefront of utilizing viruses as tools to combat infections when antibiotics fall short. The Turner Lab explores viral evolution and adaptation, and how to use viruses to combat health threats like antibiotic-resistant bacteria and cancer. The concept of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" comes to life as Turner's research explores how viruses can be harnessed to solve problems and save lives.

Paul Turner collecting samples at the beach.
Paul Turner collects coastal water nearby Woods Hole, Mass., where he often leads science projects while teaching a longstanding microbial diversity course.
Source: Paul Turner

Reflecting on the scientists he observed on television and at local zoos as a child, Turner was “impressed with what people could do professionally” within science. However, he did not see any Black professionals within the sciences beyond a family friend who was a physician. As the only Black person in his graduate program, he encountered skepticism and doubt from others who questioned his place in the field. Being “the only” and impostor syndrome weighed heavily on him. With a lack of role models in his field, he had to navigate uncharted waters, driven by an unyielding determination to prove his worth. “I know the perspective of often being the only Black person in the room. I have the lived experience, so, I know this can be very intimidating,” he said.

Turner notes that historical barriers have prevented many talented individuals from even having the opportunity to succeed or fail. “Everyone needs opportunities to fail—to try something out and see whether it succeeds or not,” he emphasized. Overcoming such adversities required not only personal tenacity, but also a broader societal shift toward inclusivity and equal opportunity in STEM and academia. At the Paul Turner Lab, his team works to combat “problems like bias and prejudice,” while “contributing to efforts to improve diversity, inclusion and equity in our lab, our department, our university and our field.” Turner’s philosophy has long been to provide opportunities for students “to explore and understand what scientists and researchers do” and to have the option to succeed in STEM or choose a different direction.

Turner's advice to future and early career scientists draws from his experiences as a scientist from an underrepresented group. "Impostor syndrome is still quite rampant in science from many different perspectives,” he said. As the first Black graduate student in his graduate program at the University of California, Irvine, Turner has felt this firsthand. The hypercritical environment of science “can be very intimidating,” he explained. “So, I tell my trainees, especially those from [historically excluded groups] in STEM, the importance of maintaining confidence and focusing on personal satisfaction.” He encourages young scientists to remain creative and true to their interests, resisting the pull of emerging scientific trends that might divert them from their passions. "Don't let the trends in microbiology sweep you along. Remember why you entered science in the first place,” Turner said.

Turner envisions a future where opportunities are abundant and unrestricted. "I don't want to be limited, and I don't want my people to be limited either," he said. His advocacy for addressing systemic barriers and expanding options and opportunities reflects his commitment to dismantling those barriers and enabling all individuals to have options to reach their full potential.

In his roles as interim dean of science, head of his department’s tenure and promotion committee and department chair, Turner has implemented strategies to recruit a more diverse pool of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty. “The wider that you cast the net, the better able you are to look broadly across people of different perspectives and training to find the best candidates,” he said. Turner recognizes the vast data that confirm that grappling with and addressing difficult problems require “a diverse set of experiences in the room.” Additionally, through his leadership of and participation with Yale’s STARS Program and National Initiative, Turner is doing his part to address imposter syndrome among students and increase representation of historically excluded groups in STEM.

Turner feels he has “recently come full circle.” In the Turner Lab, students “can do very basic research and have real, translational impact on humanity, help others and solve problems,” he reflected. “I’m very happy that I’ve stayed true to my interests in microbiology. I feel tremendous fulfillment in what I've achieved.” 

Author: Shannon Vassell

Shannon Vassell
Shannon Vassell is the Senior Program Officer for IDEAA at ASM.