John D. Altman

Born: October 6, 1962 | Detroit, MI

John D. Altman was born and raised in Birmingham, Michigan. He had planned to attend medical school after obtaining an electrical engineering degree, but soon after beginning college he switched majors to chemistry, working in Michael Marletta’s toxicology laboratory. During his junior year he realized that he wanted to go into research, and decided to attend University of California, San Francisco for graduate school. His doctoral research in Irwin Kuntz’s biophysical chemistry laboratory involved using two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study protein structure. After postdocs at Stanford and Oxford University, Altman accepted a position at the Vaccine Center of Emory University. He talks about his administrative roles collaborations, funding, and his research on vaccines at the Southeastern Regional Center for Excellence in Biodefense. 

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0476
No. of pages: 112
Minutes: 450

Interview Sessions

30-31 January and 1 February 2006
Emory Vaccine Center in the Yerkes Regional Primate Center, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

Abstract of Interview

John D. Altman was born and raised in Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. He and his sister, two years younger, attended public schools, where, without parental prodding (or so he remembers), both were good students. He had an inspiring literature class in high school but remembers no inspirational classes in the sciences. His family belonged to a Hebrewless temple where the rabbi had established the Society for Humanistic Judaism; Altman was bar mitzvah there in an unusual ceremony.

Altman had planned to attend medical school after obtaining an electrical engineering degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after which he would work on medically related things, but by what he calls incremental steps he reverted to biology. Soon after beginning college he switched majors to chemistry, working in Michael Marletta’s toxicology laboratory throughout his college career.  Extracurricular activities included fishing in Gloucester, biking, and playing intramural hockey on his fraternity’s team. During his junior year he realized that he wanted to go into research, not medicine, and he decided to attend the University of California, San Francisco, for graduate school; his two influences for this decision were Marletta and Gregory Petsko.  At the University of California, San Francisco, his doctoral research in Irwin Kuntz’s biophysical chemistry laboratory involved using two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study protein structure. Altman then discusses his experiences and project with Steve Anderson at Genentech Corporation during his postdoctoral fellowship in Mark Davis’s immunology laboratory at Stanford University. At Stanford he meets and marries his wife.

Altman continues with a discussion of his postdoctoral research on protein chemistry and immunology with T cells in the Davis laboratory; his collaborations with Oxford University studying T cells and HIV immunity; his defining moment at Oxford; and meeting Rafi Ahmed. Altman accepted a position at the Vaccine Center of Emory University and set up his lab.  Altman then delves into his funding history.  He explains his administrative roles at the Emory Vaccine Center and the MHC Tetramer Core Facility; he talks about his collaborations, his current research in viral immunology, and his direction of the Immunology Core Laboratory in the Vaccine Center. He explains the funding at the MHC Tetramer Core Facility and discusses his patent and his research on vaccines at the Southeastern Regional Center for Excellence in Biodefense.  Altman describes his lab management style and the makeup of his lab and discusses how he would like to set the national science agenda. He concludes the interview by reflecting upon the wider context of his work, the impact of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences grant on his work, the grant-writing process, and the issues of patents, politics, religion, and ethical questions in science.
 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1984 Massachusetts Institute of Technology SB Chemistry
1991 University of California, San Francisco PhD Pharmaceutical Chemistry

Professional Experience

Stanford University

1991 to 1996
Postdoctoral Fellow, under Dr. Mark Davis

Emory University

1997 to 2006
Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, School of Medicine
1997 to 2006
Affiliate Scientist, Yerkes Regional Primate Center of Emory University
1997 to 2006
Affiliate Scientist, Emory Vaccine Center
1998 to 2006
Director, Emory Vaccine Center Flow Cytometry Facility
2011
Interim Director, Emory University School of Medicine Flow Cytometry Core Facility

Honors

Year(s) Award
1980

University of Michigan Regents Scholarship

1984

American Institute of Chemists Student Award

1984

Phi Beta Kappa, MIT

1984 to 1987

National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow

1987 to 1988

University of California Regents Fellow

1991 to 1994

Postdoctoral Fellow of the American Cancer Society

1999 to 2003

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Childhood, College, and Starting Graduate School
1

Childhood interests and experiences. Attending school in Birmingham, Michigan. Career path in science. Family background. Parental expectations. Sister.  Religion. Interest in literature. Attends Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Decision to major in chemistry instead of engineering. Works in Michael A. Marletta’s toxicology laboratory during college. Marletta’ s mentoring style. Extracurricular activities in college. College experiences. Decision to pursue a career in scientific research. Attends graduate school in pharmaceutical chemistry at University of California, San Francisco. Works in Irwin D. Kuntz’s biophysical chemistry laboratory.

Graduate School, Postdoctoral Research, and Setting Up a Lab at Emory University
30

Doctoral research in Kuntz's laboratory using two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study protein structure. Kuntz laboratory. Project and training with Steve Anderson at Genentech Corporation. Experiences at Genentech Corporation during graduate school. Postdoctoral fellowship in MarkDavis's immunology laboratory at Stanford University. Meets and marries wife. Importance of peer interactions in science. Davis's mentoring style. Postdoctoral research on protein chemistry and immunology with T cells. Collaborations at Oxford University studying T cells and HIV immunity. Defining moment at Oxford. Meets Rafi Ahmed. Accepts a position at the Vaccine Center of Emory University. Setting up his lab. Funding history.

Work at Emory and Reflections on Science
63

Administrative roles at the Emory Vaccine Center and the MHC Tetramer Core Facility. Collaborations. Current research in viral immunology. The MHC Tetramer Core Facility. Direction of the Immunology Core Laboratory in the Vaccine Center. Funding the MHC Tetramer Core Facility. Patent. National science agenda. Research on vaccines at the Southeastern Regional Center forExcellence in Biodefense. Lab management style. Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. Grant-writing process. Writing. Politics, religion, and science. Ethical questions in science. Educating the public about science. Professional goals. Ethnic and gender issues in science.

Index
109

About the Interviewer

Karen A. Frenkel

Karen A. Frenkel is a writer, documentary producer, and author specializing in science and technology and their impacts on society. She wrote Robots: Machines in Man’s Image (Harmony 1985) with Isaac Asimov. Her articles have appeared in many magazines and newspapers including The New York TimesCyberTimesBusiness Week, Communications Magazine, DiscoverForbesNew Media, Personal Computing, Scientific American, Scientific American MIND, The Village Voice, and Technology Review. Ms. Frenkel’s award-winning documentary films, Net Learning and Minerva’s Machine: Women and Computing aired on Public Television. She has been an interviewer for Columbia University’s Oral History Research Center’s 9/11 Narrative and Memory project, The National Press Foundation’s Oral History of Women in Journalism, and the International Psychoanalytic Institute for Training and Research’s Oral History. Professional memberships include: The Authors Guild, National Association of Science Writers, Writer’s Guild of America East, and New York Women in Film and Television: Past Member of the Board and Director of Programming. Her website is www.Karenafrenkel.com.