William W. Mattox

Born: October 27, 1957 | South Bend, IN, US

William W. Mattox was born in South Bend, Indiana and attended Michigan State University, where he worked in Drosophila and RNA processing labs; his ideas of science and of himself evolved from being around others in science, reading, and coursework. At the California Institute of Technology, he worked in Norman Davidson's lab on heldup-A gene. He became interested in sex determination when heard a talk by Bruce Baker, who explained that temperature differences sometimes determine sex in a number of animals. As a result, he took a postdoc in Baker's lab at Stanford University. Now at MD Anderson Cancer Center, he teaches experimental genetics, sits on student committees, and attempts to keep up with the explosion of scientific knowledge now so much more easily available. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0545
No. of pages: 120
Minutes: 501

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
13-14 and 17 March 2000
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas

Abstract of Interview

William W. Mattox was born in South Bend, Indiana, two miles from the Michigan border; South Bend had the nearest hospital to his home town, Edwardsburg, Michigan. He has two brothers and one sister. His father began as a mechanic but moved into banking, beginning as a teller and eventually becoming the president of the bank and then of a network of community banks. His mother was a housewife, with a brief foray into real estate sales. Mattox thinks he always liked science (perhaps he became interested in genetics because he is indirectly related to Sir Isaac Newton); from an early age he wanted to be a doctor. He liked and did well in school. In junior high school he had very good science classes, in particular one in which they built rockets. In high school his biology teacher, Clark Mead, introduced the class to regeneration by having them cut tails off newts. Mead's enthusiasm, encouragement, and influence determined that Mattox would become a biologist rather than a chemist. By this time Mattox had decided that medicine was not for him, but that he wanted to be a scientist, though he was not sure what specifically a scientist did. Mattox matriculated at Michigan State University; he chose it over University of Michigan because he wanted to stay close to home, tuition was low, and State was more rural, he thought. In college he won an award for being the most outstanding biochemistry student of that year; the prize was delivered by Ilya Prigogine. As a junior he worked in Leonard Robbins' Drosophila lab; as a senior in Fritz Rottman's RNA processing lab; his ideas of science and of himself evolved from being around others in science, from reading, from coursework. For graduate school he chose California Institute of Technology over Yale University partly because of its science and partly because of its climate. He worked in Norman Davidson's lab on heldup-A gene, the gene that causes some Drosophila to hold one wing up; he says data collection for his work was difficult and would have been much easier if he had had polymerase chain reaction, which was not discovered until two years after his graduation. In graduate school he became interested in sex determination when he read a paper and heard a talk by Bruce Baker, who explained that temperature differences sometimes determine sex in a number of animals. Mattox was fascinated by this and accepted a postdoc in Baker's lab, at Stanford University, one of six postdocs that year hoping to learn genetics, while Baker hoped to learn molecular biology from them. While there, Mattox met his future wife; they married after his sixth year, just before they went to MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. They now have a four-year-old daughter. At MD Anderson, Mattox has found students more directed toward clinical work, while his lab stresses the importance of basic science, how things work. He teaches experimental genetics; he sits on many students' committees; he oversees a seminar series and the equipment budget; he attempts to keep up with the explosion of scientific technology and knowledge now so much more easily available; he publishes. Most important, he tries to balance all this with his life at home with wife and daughter. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1980 Michigan State University BS
1986 California Institute of Technology PhD

Professional Experience

Stanford University

1986 to 1992
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Biology

University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center

1992 to 1999
Assistant Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics
1999 to 2001
Associate Professor

University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

1993 to 2001
Regular Member, Graduate Faculty of the Medical Genetics Center


Year(s) Award
1986 to 1989

Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Research Fellow

1989 to 1991

American Cancer Society Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow


Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years

Family background. Small-town Michigan childhood. Early interest in science. Building rockets. Desire to be doctor. Science fair entries. Studying regeneration. Clark Mead, high school biology teacher's influence. Decides to be scientist instead of doctor.

College Years

Enters Michigan State University. Most outstanding biochemistry student award, presented by Ilya Prigogine. Leonard Robbins' Drosophila lab. Fritz Rottman's RNA lab. Likes lab research, realizes he must get PhD.

Graduate School Years

Enters California Institute of Technology to study heldup-A gene in Norman Davidson's lab. Work requires huge number of Drosophila, making data collection difficult. Likes being among scientists, talking science. Shares eating and cooking in a sort of club. Finds project slow but interesting. Discovers interest in sex differentiation.

Postgraduate Years

Bruce Baker's work inspires Mattox, who accepts postdoc at Stanford University. More interested in genetics and less in molecular biology. Works on sex determination in Baker's lab. Meets future wife, Elizabeth Lindheim, secretary in molecular biology department. Wins Helen Hay Whitney and AmericanCancer Society awards. After four years at Stanford, begins to look for job.

Faculty Years

Accepts assistant professorship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at University of Texas in Houston. Pew Scholars Award in the Biomedical Sciences. Applicability to other systems of gene-splicing in Drosophila. Teaching responsibilities. Administrative responsibilities. Associate professorship. "Renewable" tenure. Sitting on students' committees. Directedness of students. Writing grants. Publishing. Keeping up with other scientific developments. Collaboration and competition. Creativity. Patents. Goals. Balancing work life with family life.


About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen