Lester F. Lau

Born: September 19, 1955 | Hong Kong, CN

Lester F. Lau lived in Hong Kong until he was fourteen. When the family moved to Brooklyn, Lau did well in academics. He attended the City College of New York, then studied molecular biology at Cornell University. He describes manipulating synthetic DNA to study transcription and termination. Lau worked at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, then the University of Illinois College of Medicine, where he is now an associate professor. Lau talks about whether outsiders can still make contributions to science, and the status of women and minorities in science. He concludes by talking about his National Institutes of Health grant reviews and his plans to explore a genetics approach to isolating immediate-early genes. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0511
No. of pages: 146
Minutes: 500

Interview Sessions

Neil D. Hathaway
6-8 November 1992
University of Illinois College of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois

Abstract of Interview

Lester F. Lau, the youngest of three children, lived in Hong Kong until he was fourteen. Lau's parents were strict, Lau was—he says—introverted, and Chinese schools stressed conformity over creativity, so when the family moved to Brooklyn Lau was able to do so well in science and mathematics that he skipped a grade. This led to difficulty in high school, as his understanding of English did not keep pace. He actually ended up seventh in his class of over 1,000, however, which was more than good enough to qualify him for City College of New York. He decided to go there in great part because it was free, but another consideration was that he had been accepted into their honors program and given a scholarship. He originally thought he might be a history major, but an organic chemistry class changed his mind. He found science to be like a puzzle or a detective story; and he was excited by the enormous addition to knowledge that science had provided. Lau began graduate school at Purdue University, studying X-ray crystallography, but he switched to molecular biology at Cornell University, entering Ray Wu's lab. He describes working with Jeffrey Roberts, manipulating synthetic DNA to study transcription and termination. Here he discusses the shift from his interest in procaryotic systems to eucaryotic systems; continuity and discontinuity in his career; and his independent research style. From there he went to Gerald Fink's lab to study yeast genetics, and he created a double-mutation yeast strain. He decided to do a postdoc in molecular biology in Daniel Nathans's lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and he received a Helen Hays Whitney Fellowship. Here Lau talks about the genesis and impact of Nathans's work on simian virus 40; the value of interacting with other fellows; and applying a molecular approach to studying cell cycle regulation. He continues with a discussion of the difficulties involved in differential hybridization; differential screening in other labs; encountering skepticism in the field; prior work on how genes activate cells; the usefulness of simple lab techniques; the reaction to Lau's findings; and the politics of scientific publishing. Lau gives his opinion about whether outsiders can still make contributions to science, grant review sections, and the status of women and minorities in science. He talks more about the reception given his papers and publication timing and the job market. He goes into his reasons for leaving Nathans's lab. At this point in his career, Lau began to hunt for a job. One criterion was his preference for big cities, so he accepted a position at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago and set up his new lab. His next peroration encompasses the role of basic research in a medical school, to wit the teaching duties of research biologists versus doing research. Lau's next move was to the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, where he is now an associate professor. He discusses sequencing cDNAs; trying to determine gene functions; and his competitors. He explains how different stimuli can activate immediate-early genes; the complex process of cell cycle regulation; the need to look beyond the tissue culture model to the organism; and how he learned to make transgenic mice. He concludes by talking about his National Institutes of Health grant reviews and his plans to explore a genetics approach to isolating immediate-early genes. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1976 City College of New York BS Chemistry
1983 Cornell University PhD Biochemistry/Molecular Biology

Professional Experience

Cornell University

1983
Postdoctoral Associate, Department of Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

1983 to 1986
Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Molecular Biology
1986
Associate, Department of Molecular Biology, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Laboratory

Northwestern University Medical School

1986 to 1989
Assistant Professor, Department of Molecular Biology

University of Illinois College of Medicine

1989 to 1992
Assistant Professor, Department of Genetics
1992 to 1993
Associate Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
1976

Phi Beta Kappa

1976

Arthur Levy Award for Chemistry, City College of New York

1978 to 1981

National Institutes of Health Predoctoral Training Grant

1983 to 1986

Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship

1988 to 1991

American Cancer Society Junior Faculty Award

1988 to 1992

Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences

1992 to 1995

University Scholar Award, University of Illinois

1992 to 1997

Established Investigator, American Heart Association

Table of Contents

Childhood, Moving to the United States, and College
1

Hong Kong. Early education. Parents. How Chinese schools stressed conformity over creativity. Family's move to Brooklyn. High school. Extended family in China. Assimilation. Decision to attend City College of New York (CCNY). Commuting to college from home. CCNY honors program. Reasons for pursuinga career in science.

Graduate School and Postdoctoral Work
31

Enters graduate school at Purdue University to study X-ray crystallography. Switches to pursuing molecular biology at Cornell University. Research in Ray Wu's lab. Working with Jeffrey W. Roberts. Manipulating synthetic DNA to study transcription and termination. Shift from interest in procaryotic systems to eucaryotic systems. Studies yeast genetics in Gerald R. Fink's lab. Creates adouble-mutation yeast strain. Decides to do a postdoc in molecular biology in Daniel Nathans's lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Genesis and impact of Nathans's work on simian virus 40. Helen Hays Whitney Fellowship. Molecular approach to study cell cycle regulation. Difficulties involved in differential hybridization. Politics of scientific publishing. Peer review.

Thoughts About Science and Becoming Faculty
74

Future plans. Grant review sections. Status of women and minorities in science. Publication timing and the job market. Job hunting. Preference for big cities. Accepts a position at Northwestern University Medical School. Setting up a newlab. University politics. Decision to leave Northwestern. Role of basic research in a medical school. Teaching duties of research biologists.

University of Illinois College of Medicine
144

Move to the University of Illinois College of Medicine. Sequencing cDNAs. Trying to determine gene functions. How different stimuli can activate immediate-early genes. Complex process of cell cycle regulation. Looking beyond the tissue culture model to the organism. Learning to make transgenic mice. National Institutes of Health grant reviews. Plans to explore a genetics approach to isolating immediate-early genes.

Index
143

About the Interviewer

Neil D. Hathaway