James B. Bliska

Born: December 29, 1959 | Grand Junction, CO, US

James B. Bliska was born in Grand Junction, Colorado. Yearly summer trips to his family's lake house sparked his interest in biology. While working as a dishwasher in a lab at the University of Wisconsin, Bliska first tried his hand at research. Eventually he was performing lab procedures and publishing. Bliska attended the University of California, Berkeley's Molecular Biology PhD program, researching DNA topology during site-specific recombination reactions. He next took a postdoc in Stanley Falkow's lab at Stanford University, where he attempted to purify a biologically active form of a Yersinia surface membrane protein. Bliska then became a principal investigator at SUNY Stony Brook and received tenure. He studies bacterial-host cell interactions in hopes of explaining a method of toxin delivery that has widespread medical applications. 

Access This Interview

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

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0446
No. of pages: 70
Minutes: 400

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
30-31 May and 1 June 2000
State University of New York, Stony Brook Stony Brook, New York

Abstract of Interview

James B. Bliska was born in Grand Junction, Colorado, in 1959, the youngest of four children.  His father was an architect originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan who died when James was only five years old.  His mother was an elementary school teacher from Minnesota.  His family moved throughout the United States several times during his youth, a lifestyle that provided several challenges for Bliska.  It was, however, the yearly summer trips to his family’s lake house that sparked his interest in biology; and with the positive influence of his high-school biology teacher, Bliska was able to focus his interests.

Bliska attended Western State College of Colorado for one year and then transferred to the University of Wisconsin.  It was not until his employment as a dishwasher in Oliver Smithies’ genetics lab that Bliska began to try his hand at research.  Eventually he was performing the majority of the lab procedures and became published.  This experience led him to develop a great interest in academic research and to switch his declared major from biology to bacteriology.  Bliska applied to several PhD programs, and upon receiving his B.S. in Bacteriology in 1983, he matriculated into the University of California, Berkeley’s Molecular Biology PhD program, where he worked in Nicholas R. Cozzarelli’s Lab researching DNA topology during site-specific recombination reactions.  He then collaborated with a lab at the University of California, San Francisco studying drug resistance in trypanosomes.  This research led him down the path of infectious disease, one that would shape his career.

After receiving his doctorate in 1988, Bliska began his postdoc research in Stanley Falkow’s lab at Stanford University, where he attempted to purify a biologically active form of a Yersinia surface membrane protein.  He then switched his focus to Yops (Yersinia outer membrane proteins) in a collaborative effort with Jack E. Dixon.  He met his wife, Janice Valmassoi, in Dixon’s lab at Stanford.

In 1993 Bliska accepted a post as a principal investigator in the microbiology department of the State University of New York, Stony Brook and in 1999 received academic tenure as an associate professor.  Since his arrival at SUNY Stony Brook his researched has focused primarily on Yops as bacterial toxins and the type-III secretion systems used by Yersinia to deliver them into host cells.  He studies these bacterial-host cell interactions in hopes of explaining a widely conserved method of toxin delivery that has widespread medical applications. 

Throughout his oral history Bliska emphasizes the importance of balancing personal and academic responsibilities.  Bliska has received several grants, including a postdoc and a Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences grant, which he discusses in the oral history interview.  He has published many articles on a variety of subjects in his young career.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1983 University of Wisconsin, Madison BS
1988 University of California, Berkeley PhD

Professional Experience

Stanford University

1988 to 1993
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Microbiology and Immunology

State University of New York at Stony Brook

1993 to 1999
Assistant Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology
1999 to 2001
Associate Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1991

National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellowship

1994 to 1998

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Growing Up
1

Extended Family. Father's early death. Frequent moves. High-school. Interest in biology. Thoughts on religion and creationism. Applying to college.

Undergraduate Education
13

Western State College of Colorado. Transfer to University of Wisconsin. Undergraduate research in Oliver Smithies' genetics lab. Switches major to bacteriology. Social life and other jobs. Choosing graduate school.

Graduate School Education
19

University of California at Berkley. Rotation in Nicholas R. Cozarelli's lab. DNA topology. Changing research focus to infectious diseases. Management style of mentors.

Postdoctoral Research
23

Stanley Falkow's lab at Stanford University. Yersinia serum resistance. Collaboration with Jack E. Dixon. Yop toxins. Meets his wife. Finding employment. Reflections on postdoc. Transitioning from postdoc to independent research

Principal Investigator Research
31

Environment at SUNY Stony Brook. Funding and grant writing. Tenure. Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences award. Teaching and how students have changed. Faults with organization of current graduate programs. Laissez-faire approach to postdoc students. Managing a lab. Committee work. Minorities in science. Travel. Publishing.

Family Life
42

Balancing professional life and family responsibilities. Impact of children on life and science.

Current Research
45

Source of ideas. Evolution of research from Stanley Falkow's lab. Research on Yop toxin delivery system. Type III secretion systems. Practical application of Yop research. Luck and preparedness in scientific discovery.

Biomedical Science
55

Competition and collaboration. Being scooped. Bioinformatics. External controls on science. Cloning. Genetics. Responsibility of scientific community. Staying in Stony Brook, NY. Future of research and department.

Index
66

About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen