Mark M. Davis

Born: November 27, 1952 | Paris, FR

Mark Davis grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He matriculated at Johns Hopkins University, where he majored in biology because he thought it answered important questions. He worked in Michael Beer's lab, trying to sequence DNA with a transfer scanning microscope. His advisors suggested graduate studies at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). There he eventually settled in Leroy Hood's laboratory, where he worked successfully with Philip Early, an early molecular biologist. Davis cloned the first mouse genomic library. His next move was to National Institutes of Health. In William Paul's lab he designed a general technology to find genes expressed at very low levels. Recognizing that T-cell receptors are important for immunology, Davis, the only molecular biologist in his department, began his work on T-cell receptors, work that continues today. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0722
No. of pages: 43
Minutes: 210

Interview Sessions

14 December 1989
Stanford University Palo Alto, California

Abstract of Interview

Mark Davis grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the second of five children. His father was a civil engineer, his mother an architect. Davis took an early interest in science, thanks to wide reading and an influential high school biology teacher. Davis matriculated at Johns Hopkins University. Trouble in a mini organic chemistry class sent him to Peter Johnson's synthetic organic chemistry lab, where he helped produce two papers. He switched majors to biology because he thought it answered important questions. He worked in Michael Beer's lab, trying to sequence DNA with a transfer scanning microscope. Hopkins was known for its membrane biologists, and Davis, interested in molecular biology, wanted to combine the study of DNA with classical genetics studies. He consulted his advisors, who told him to take a physical chemistry class and suggested graduate studies at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). There he went into Edward Lewis' Drosophila lab, but he hated flies and found Lewis difficult to work with. He then went to Eric Davidson's lab, where he worked with Glen Galau and William Klein on sea urchins. Davidson was harshly critical and Davis found the lab atmosphere oppressive; he moved to Leroy Hood's lab. There he worked successfully with Philip Early, an early molecular biologist. Davis cloned the first mouse genomic library. His approach to science is to prepare thoroughly, to avoid what others do, and to look for variations. Davis's next move was to National Institutes of Health. In William Paul's lab he designed a general technology to find genes expressed at very low levels. At Ronald Schwartz's suggestion Davis used pulse field gel technology to discover delta chain of T-cell receptors. Recognizing that T-cell receptors are important for immunology, Davis, the only molecular biologist in his department, began his work on T-cell receptors, work that continues today. Davis still works in his lab, which is beginning to do biochemical work on T-cells, trying to engineer expression of membrane proteins in soluble form. His lab is also working with transgenic mice, a more difficult system for which he gets help from Pamela Bjorkman and others. Davis applies to science the strategies of fencing; he compares the principles of economy and mastery in fencing to samurai movies. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1974 Johns Hopkins University BA Molecular Biology
1981 California Institute of Technology PhD Molecular Biology

Professional Experience

National Institutes of Health

1980 to 1982
Post-Doctorate Fellow, Molecular Immunology
1982 to 1983
Staff Fellow, Laboratory of Immunology

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

1983
Instructor, Molecular Cloning Course

Stanford University School of Medicine

1983 to 1986
Assistant Professor, Department of Medical Microbiology
1986 to 1990
Associate Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

1987 to 1990
Associate Investigator, Stanford University

Honors

Year(s) Award
1980

Intra-Science Research Foundation Award

1981

Milton and Frances Clauser Doctoral Prize, California Institute of Technology

1985

The Passano Foundation Young Scientist Award

1985 to 1988

Member, Scientific Advisory Board, Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Foundation

1985 to 1989

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Science Award

1986

Eli Lilly Award in Microbiology and Immunology

1986

Kayden Award from the New York Academy of Sciences

1988 to 1990

Member of the Allergy and Immunology Study Section, Division of Research Grants, National Institutes of Health

1989

Gairdner Foundation International Award

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Grew up in Pittsburgh, second of five children. Father a civil engineer, mother an architect. Drifted into science.  Double Helix. Merv Griffin show. Scientific discovery exciting. Made chlorine gas with chemistry set. Biology teacher, Michael Tomko, in high school. Worldly Philosophers, biographies of economists. Used Junior Achievement experience in interview for college.

College Years
6

Matriculated at Johns Hopkins University. Found biology interesting; liked lab work. Entered Peter Johnson's synthetic organic chemistry lab. Johnson enthusiastic and hands-on. Switched to biology as more interesting; chemistry a kind of "guessing game," while biology had "deeper purpose," answering important questions. National Science Foundation summer project in Alsoph Corwin's lab. Transfer scanning electron microscope in Michael Beer's lab, sequencing DNA. Sequencing important, not investigated by James Watson and Francis Crick. Hopkins known for membrane biologists: Saul Roseman, Michael Harrington, Maurice Bessman. Gerald Rubin and Allan Spradling at Carnegie Institution next door to Hopkins doing molecular biology. Trip to Europe.

California Years
17

Hopkins advisors said to take physical chemistry. Poland's class on macromolecules. Wanted to interface study of DNA with classical genetics studies. Accepted postdoc at California Institute of Technology. Max Delbrück. James Bonner. Edward Lewis' Drosophila lab. Hated flies; found Lewis distant, hard to understand. Went to Eric Davidson's lab. Davidson's personality, outside interests. Worked with Glen Galau and William Klein. Exceedingly critical atmosphere. Interesting work in Ronald Konopka's lab but chose Leroy Hood's lab instead. Philip Early and beginnings of molecular biology. Molecular immunology; Thomas Maniatis. Mammalian cloning. Antibody diversity. First mouse genomic library. Fencing as preparation for science. Davis's approach to science.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Years
31

William Paul's lab. Did not want to clone lymphokines. Finding difference in gene expression. Immunoglobulin issues already solved. Designed general technology to get at genes expressed at very low level. Major histocompatibility genes boring; people still working on them ten years later. Medawar quotation again: work on important problems. Ronald Schwartz and T-cell receptors. T-cell receptors work ongoing; important for immunology. Transgenics.

Current Work
36

Still works in lab sometimes. Believes good scientists must be good in lab to keep up with new technology, get new insights. Maniatis and Hood really understood how things work and could teach others. His lab heading to biochemistry about T-cells. Trying to engineer expression of membrane proteins in soluble form. Tried to teach himself protein chemistry, what he considers last part of T-cell recognition. Fencing techniques applied to science. Economy and essence of fencing lead to devastation of enemy. Susumu Tonegawa also a samurai in science.

Index
42

About the Interviewer

Robert Kohler
Naomi Morrissette