Above: Strasbourg’s Georgel (left) and Marshall’s Georgel (right)
It first sparked some confusion back in 1992, and it may be sparking some confusion to this day. Marshall University’s Dr. Philippe Georgel, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, has a colleague with the same name, doing research in his same field, but based at Université de Strasbourg. They’ve followed each other’s work for 30 years. And finally, they’ve teamed up for a project.
Marshall’s Georgel was at Oregon State University in the early 1990s, working on his Ph.D. in biochemistry and biophysics, when colleagues started asking him about some publications that had his name on them — and were even in his area of research — but were not his. Sure enough, there was another Philippe Georgel working in the same field. He, too, was French, only he continued, after a first sabbatical in California, to build his career in France, whereas Marshall’s Georgel worked at several universities throughout the United States before landing at Marshall in Huntington, West Virginia, in 2002.
“The first time we spoke was on the phone, when I decided to call him and see how we could differentiate each other. Middle initial was the first choice,” Marshall’s Georgel recalls. “Neither one of us had one.”
His Ph.D. advisor at Oregon State, Dr. Ken van Holde, who was listening to the conversation, picked out a book and asked him to select a page number, line number, a word number and finally a letter within that word, Marshall’s Georgel remembers. “T” was the final selection.
“He looked at me, stopped for a second, smiled, and went: ‘T, T? Got it! Trouble.’ So, ‘Trouble’ it was. I had been re-baptized by my scientific father.”
The two Dr. Philippe Georgels were made distinguishable by that made-up middle initial from then on. “Georgel” is not even a common surname in France, said Marshall’s Philippe T. Georgel, who hails from Poitou region, having been born in Niort and having studied in Poitiers. Strasbourg’s Georgel is from the Alsace region, along the German border.
“This specific last name is not particularly common, and the combination first name/last name is definitely not as common as John Smith,” explained Marshall’s Georgel, who along with teaching and mentoring graduate and postdoctoral students, recently served as interim assistant vice president for research, director of Marshall’s Cell Differentiation and Development Center and coordinator of the bioinformatics certificate program, among many other involvements at the university, including as Faculty Senate chair for two years.
“The odds of two individuals of that same first and last name working in the same field at the same time, also looking for jobs in the same field and at the same time is very, very low,” he said.
The first time they connected over the phone, they joked about submitting a paper together, just for kicks. Finally, 30 years later, they made it happen. They identified their current scientific common ground and chose a topic that was comfortable for both.
Strasbourg’s Georgel was recently on sabbatical in Nouméa, New Caledonia, where he was investigating potential causes for a high propensity of gout in that part of the world.
“He was wondering if some specific aspects of nutrition could be contributing to individuals’ sensitivity to develop gout,” Marshall’s Georgel explained. “Certain types of food have been linked to gout, but we were interested in a better understanding of the molecular aspects of diet and their effect on expression of genes involved in gout. My own interest in investigating diet, cancer and epigenetics provided the second element of our collaborative manuscript.
“He does have a solid understanding of epigenetics and I was interested in learning more about gout and inflammation, so our choice went for ‘Diet, Gout and Epigenetics,’” Marshall’s Georgel said. “A few months later, we had a solid draft and were now trying to find a good match to publish it. The name of the authors’ order did not really matter. My homonym put me first and him second and last by default, and both of us were corresponding authors, no favoritism allowed. Frontiers in Immunology ended up as our top choice for submission, and we were lucky enough to get our work accepted for publication in that journal.”
Their research was published in the fall of 2021.
Since they’ve gotten to know each other, they’ve discovered even further commonalities. They’re both runners and both love hiking. Also, “he did his postdoc on the West Coast in California, while I did my doctoral work in Oregon,” Marshall’s Georgel said. “We both liked the West Coast and enjoyed local hiking trails and the mountains. The Germanic wives’ commonality was also highly unexpected.
“I am absolutely delighted that we ended doing what we planned on achieving nearly 30 years ago,” Marshall’s Georgel said. “We never gave up on the idea. It was just a matter of serendipity and availability. I am smiling at the concepts of the readers of this article checking the authors’ list for an error, thinking, ‘Why did they put the same name twice?’”