John M. Leong

Born: January 23, 1957 | Berkeley, CA, US

John M. Leong was born in Berkeley, California. His parents expected him to attend an Ivy League school and become a doctor. He entered the Program in Liberal Medical Education at Brown University, which grants a BS and an MD, but a molecular biology class inspired him to become a research scientist and work toward a PhD as well as an MD. He entered Arthur Landy's lab, where he began working on œü80. John accepted a postdoc at Tufts University, where he worked on the inv gene of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, then on Lyme spirochete. He has experienced a hostile political climate surrounding the study of Lyme, and thinks he will add enterohemorrhagic E. coli to his research interests. He laughingly points out that there is more grant money in E. coli, too. Leong is now at the University of Massachusetts. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0557
No. of pages: 78
Minutes: 401

Interview Sessions

Andrea R. Maestrejuan
5-7 February 1997
University of Massachusetts Medical Center, Worcester, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

John M. Leong was born and raised in Berkeley, California, the third of three siblings. His parents are Chinese-American and had what John calls typical Chinese expectations for their children; viz. , that all three should do well in school and attend Ivy League colleges, and that the boys, at least, should become doctors. This was particularly the case because John's grandfather was a dentist and his father a doctor manqué who became a mining engineer in order to support his family. John, however, was more interested in sports as a boy, playing tennis especially. He did well enough in school, though, to be accepted by a number of Ivy League colleges. He matriculated at Brown University in their Program in Liberal Medical Education, which grants both a BS and an MD degree in a shortened time period. When he began college he was unsure what he wanted to do, but a class in molecular biology inspired him to become a research scientist. He decided to take time off from medicine in favor of earning a PhD. He entered Arthur Landy's lab, where he began working on φ80. During this time, he commuted for a few months to Mimi Susskind's lab at University of Massachusetts, where he worked with Philip Youderian on P22. John accepted a postdoc at Tufts University, in Ralph Isberg's lab, though that lab had not yet been set up. There he worked on the inv gene of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, from which he was nudged toward working on the Lyme spirochete. Deciding to accept a position in the medical school at Tufts University, he studied integrin binding and proteoglycan binding with B. burgdorferi in his attempts to characterize genes that encode ligands in B. burgdorferi. Although he found that the clinical perspective provided by an MD degree made Lyme disease interesting, Leong felt that he thought more as a basic scientist, and he accepted a position at the University of Massachusetts. He has found that Lyme is a difficult experimental study and that there is a hostile political climate surrounding the study of Lyme, and he is thinking that he will work on enterohemorrhagic E. coli. He laughingly points out that there is more grant money in E. coli, too, an important factor for any scientist. Although he likes his work, Leong says that he would also like to spend more time with his young daughter and his wife, who is a physician; and he would like to play more tennis. He believes that balancing act is faced by all two-career couples. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1979 Brown University BA
1985 Brown University PhD
1987 Brown University MD

Professional Experience

Tufts University School of Medicine

1987 to 1990
Postdoctoral Fellow
1993 to 1995
Graduate Faculty Member, Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology

New England Medical Center

1990 to 1995
Assistant Professor of Medicine, Department of Rheumatology and Immunology

University of Massachusetts Medical Center

1995 to 1998
Assistant Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology


Year(s) Award

Phi Beta Kappa


Barry Rosen Memorial Award, Brown University

1992 to 1996

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years

Family background. Parental pressure to study medicine. Growing up Chinese-American. Early academic focus on science. Berkeley during the sixties.

College Years

Begins the Brown University Program in Liberal Medical Education with unclear professional goals. Extraordinary dedication and talent demanded by a science career—Performs well at Brown. Meets future wife, Charis Cladouhos. Inspired by a course in molecular biology. Enters the Arthur Landy lab. Decides to leave medicine for PhD. More on becoming inspired by molecular biology. Attempting to characterize the φ80 site and its recombination proteins. Landy's motivational techniques. Works on P22 with Philip Youderian in theMiriam M. Susskind lab. Landy's role as mentor. Difficulties of cloning the left attachment site of φ80. Returns to medical school. Decides on a research career rather than continuing medical training.

Postdoctoral Years

Applies for postdoctoral positions in a variety of different labs. Leong's contribution to the Ralph R. Isberg lab's inv gene work. Isberg as a mentor. Decision to stay at Tufts University. Looking at integrin binding and proteoglycan binding with B. burgdorferi. The importance of characterizing the genes that encode ligands in B. burgdorferi. Lyme disease as a problem that is both clinically relevant and technically challenging. Clinical perspective provided by an M.D. degree.

Faculty Years

Research support at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Establishing a scientific identity apart from Isberg. Attracting postdocs to the lab. How doing clinically based research is helpful in securing grants. The political climate surrounding Lyme research. Work on enterohemorrhagic E. coli. Leong's changing expectations at midcareer. Impact of increased funding pressures. Leong's ability to organize large collaborations. Difficulties facing two-career couples. Family life places constraints on time for research.


About the Interviewer

Andrea R. Maestrejuan