Michael D. Cole

Born: August 27, 1951 | Lima, OH, US

Michael D. Cole grew up in Ada, Ohio, the oldest of four children. Having excelled at math and physics in high school, he majored in physics at Ohio Northern University. He found biology more attractive as a career so he entered a PhD program at Johns Hopkins University, starting in Michael Beer's lab. As a postdoc in Ru Chih Huang's lab, Cole planned to study immunoglobulin but ended up working to characterize the myc gene instead. Cole accepted a position at St. Louis University, where he found the translocation and translocation breakpoint of myc, a major breakthrough in the study of cancer. He moved to Princeton Universityand has stayed with myc since, still seeking the binding site. He has two other related areas of interest:  finding cofactors necessary for activating tumor growth and studying growth factor receptors. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0719
No. of pages: 38
Minutes: 140

Interview Sessions

Robert Kohler and Naomi Morrissette
1 August 1989
Princeton University Princeton, New Jersey

Abstract of Interview

Michael D. Cole grew up in Ada, Ohio, the oldest of four children. His father was an insurance agent, his mother a housewife. He was always interested in science and nature. He was good at math and physics in high school, so he majored in physics at Ohio Northern University, never taking a biology class. Nonetheless, he found biology more attractive as a career so he entered a PhD program at Johns Hopkins University, starting in Michael Beer's lab. His thesis involved trying to sequence DNA using microscopy. As a postdoc in Ru Chih Huang's lab, Cole planned to study immunoglobulin but ended up working to characterize the myc gene instead. Cole took his first job at St. Louis University, where he used the tumor systems in a "survey" experiment with myc. He found the translocation and translocation breakpoint, publishing results in Cell; that were considered a major breakthrough in the study of cancer. He moved to Princeton University, where there was a good molecular biology department headed by Arnold Levine. He has stayed with myc since, still seeking the binding site, but he has two other related areas of interest: finding cofactors necessary for activating tumor growth and studying growth factor receptors. Cole talks about his personal philosophy; his style; his belief in the necessity for intellectual curiosity in science; serendipity; funding difficulties, especially for long-term projects like his; the problem of invasiveness of tumors. He hopes that in five years he will have found the binding site for myc. He wants to study the biology of the system in order to find out how transformation of cells occurs, but at this point he feels that the technology does not permit it; he will be going to Sweden to try using PCR. Cole concludes the interview with a discussion of the prints and postcards decorating his office. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1973 Ohio Northern University BA Physics
1978 Johns Hopkins University PhD Biophysics

Professional Experience

Johns Hopkins University

1978 to 1980
Post Doctorate, Biology

St. Louis University

1980 to 1984
Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, School of Medicine

Princeton University

1984 to 1990
Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1978 to 1980

Leukemia Society Postdoctoral Fellowship

1984 to 1988

American Cancer Society Faculty Research Award

1985 to 1989

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Grew up in Ada, Ohio. Father insurance agent, mother housewife. Oldest of four children. Always interested in science. Collected turtles. Religion. Good at math and physics in high school. Attended Ohio Northern University, home-town college; took no biology or chemistry classes.

Graduate School Years
4

More interested in biology for career; choosing biophysics programs. Johns Hopkins gave best offer. Tutorial with Daniel Butler piqued interest in genetics. Started in Michael Beer's lab. Defining biophysics. Wife medical technician at Johns Hopkins. Divorce. Thesis involved using microscopy to sequence DNA. Good relationship with Beer. Project not very successful.

Postdoc Years
10

Molecular biology still small field. Wanted to do gene regulation. Worked in Ru Chih Huang's lab. Tried to clone immunoglobulin, but cloned contaminant, mouse retrovirus. Got immunoglobulin later, also by accident, expressed in tumor cells. Others working on immunoglobulin: Susumu Tonegawa, Leroy Hood, Philip Leder

St. Louis University Years
13

Simian virus 40 paper by Daniel Nathans and Hamilton Smith got him interested in cell transformation. Used postdoc tumor systems in assay from Robert Weinberg paper. Couldn't identify any gene by doing transfection in plastocytoma DNA. Paper by William Hayward finally persuaded to try "survey" experiment with myc; successful. Still with myc. Found translocation and translocation break point; published in Cell. Ras oncogene mutation mapped; publicity for major cancer breakthrough. Beat other, larger labs; Leder's lab had found but not recognized. Larger labs do more experiments but not more successful per person. Most contributions by talented people going to best schools and labs. St. Louis and Wake Forest his best job offers. Hopkins' biochemistry department heavily "German"; Wisconsin chemistry. Department considered molecular biology a fad, not real biology; cloning genetics, not biology. Molecular biology done in medical school and at Carnegie Institution. Biochemistry also got more publicity. Likes teaching. Style hard to define: "bounces around. " Frustration because no conceptual way to go from protein to binding site, but easy to go other way. Now trying PCR to find site.

From St. Louis University to Princeton University
24

Wanted to be in East. Accepted offer from Princeton University. Arnold Levine chair of department; good molecular biology. Prefers not being in medical school. Lab size now smaller.  Side areas of interest: what else besides myc involved for transformation; also growth factor receptors. Structural biology interesting but does not tell how cell is transformed. Invasiveness. Traditional dogma: myc immortalizes, ras transforms; his lab reverses. Hopes in five years to have found binding site for myc. Wants to study biology of system; at this point technology does not permit. Funding and long-term projects

Personal Philosophy and General Thoughts
32

Independent. Does not like to do what others are doing. Proud of first paper; thorough mapping. Myc paper also very good, though less publicity garnered. Competition: labs of David Baltimore, Harold Varmus, Philip Sharp. Serendipity important in science. Cdc2 protein latest "hot" topic. Overselling. Need for intellectual curiosity. Always liked to put together things or to analyze. Still works at bench. Sweden. PCR on myc to find binding site. Discussion of artists' prints in office.

Index
37

About the Interviewer

Robert Kohler
Naomi Morrissette