Ronald A. Milligan

Born: May 9, 1954 | Londonderry, GB

Ronald A. Milligan grew up near Londonderry, Northern Ireland, becoming the first in his family to attend university. He had been interested in biology since childhood, and chose to study botany and bacteriology at the University of Leeds. After graduating, Milligan became a research assistant at the Nuffield Institute of Comparative Medicine at the London Zoo, then at the Medical Research Council, going to work on nuclear pore complex (NPC) in Nigel Unwin's lab. When Unwin was recruited to Stanford, Milligan followed. He spent three months in Germany, studying cryo-electron microscopy; his results allowed him to acquire independence as a researcher. Milligan talks about his NPC research, grantsmanship, and safe science," lab research, personnel, computers, and his work at Scripps Research Institute. "

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0575
No. of pages: 222
Minutes: 500

Interview Sessions

Neil D. Hathaway
22, 24 October and 17 December 1992
Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California

Abstract of Interview

Ronald A. Milligan grew up on a farm outside of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, the youngest of five children. Life was, in his words, "primitive." He spent most of his free time outside, never feeling bored. He was interested in birdwatching, eventually in hunting birds. He passed his 11+ exam, attended grammar school, and went on to university, the first in his family. He had been interested in biology all through his childhood, and when a school trip to Queen's University in Belfast exposed him to bacteriology, he decided he wanted to study botany and bacteriology. His scores admitted him to the University of Leeds. He had made the decision to be a research scientist earlier, though he does not remember how he learned what a scientist did. During his teenage years religious conflict in Northern Ireland became extreme; there was the outbreak of terrorism and British military occupation. Milligan was graduated with a lower second-class honors degree and began to hunt for a job. He took a position as a research assistant at the Nuffield Institute of Comparative Medicine at the London Zoo, where he studied botulism and bovine pleuropneumonia. From there he became a research assistant at the Medical Research Council (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, going to work on nuclear pore complex (NPC) in Nigel Unwin's lab. When Unwin was recruited to Stanford, Milligan went along as a graduate student. Here Milligan discusses Unwin's reasons for leaving MRC and his [Unwin's] own experiences at Stanford. Milligan goes into detail about his work on low-temperature ribosome crystallization and how electron microscopes damage specimens. He spent three months in Heidelberg, Germany, studying cryo-electron microscopy; his results allowed him to acquire independence as a researcher. Milligan talks about his NPC research, grantsmanship, and "safe science"; he explains his work of freezing specimens in amorphous ice and the damage caused by electron microscopy and by freezing; he goes into methods of enhancing imaging, synthetic universe visualization software, omega energy filtering microscopes, field emission guns, atomic force microscopy, and relations with competitors; and he continues with explanations of cell symmetry and the structure of the NPC and NPC intermediate structures. Milligan's research continued with studying muscle cell structure with cryo-electron microscopy, and he collaborated with Paula F. Flicker: there was a lack of evidence for the cross-bridge muscle cycle theory but a discovery of new myosins. He attended cell biology conferences and spent money setting up a lab. He conceived an interest in molecular motors and talks about microtubule dynamics. Milligan winds down his interview with answers to general questions: he talks about the need to work in the mainstream of scientific research; personnel in his lab; the role of computers; how funding trends shape research; the autonomy provided by Scripps Research Institute; Milligan's raison d'étre; pure science and applied science; scientists' motivations; Scripps's ties to Johnson and Johnson; how Scripps recruited Milligan; and the Scripps administration. He finishes with insight into his marriage and thoughts about his future. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1975 University of Leeds BSc Plant Science and Microbiology
1984 Stanford University PhD Cell Biology

Professional Experience

Nuffield Institute of Comparative Medicine

1975 to 1978
Research Assistant

Medical Research Council

1978 to 1980
Research Assistant, Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Stanford University

1984 to 1987
Postdoctoral Fellow

European Molecular Biology Laboratory of Heidelberg

1985
Postdoctoral Fellow

Scripps Research Institute

1987 to 1993
Assistant Member
1993 to 1994
Associate Member

Honors

Year(s) Award
1981 to 1984

SERC/NATO Overseas Studentship

1982 to 1983

EMBO Short Term Fellowship

1985

Royal Society Postdoctoral Fellowship

1987

EMSA Burton Medal

1988 to 1992

Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences

1989

National Institutes of Health DRR and NHLBI Special Study Sections

1991 to 1993

Editorial Board, Journal of Structural Biology

1991 to 1992

Peer Review Committee, American Heart Association, California
Affiliate

Table of Contents

Childhood and Politics in the United Kingdom
1

Farm outside of Londonderry,Northern Ireland. Family background. Early interest in bird watching. Irish educational system. University of Leeds. Decision to be a research scientist. Religious conflict in Northern Ireland. Outbreak of terrorism and British military occupation. Reasons for leaving Ireland.

College and Work as a Researcher
44

Majors in plant science and microbiology at University of Leeds. Graduates with a second-class honors degree. Job hunting. Research assistant at the Nuffield Institute of Comparative Medicine at the London Zoo. Studying botulism and bovine pleuropneumonia. Research assistant at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

Graduate School
65

Image processing of the nuclear core complex (NPC). Joins P. N. T. Unwin in setting up a new lab at Stanford University. Unwin's reasons for leaving MRC. Stanford bureaucracy. Work as a graduate student. Low-temperature ribosome crystallization. How electron microscopes damage specimens. Studies cryoelectron microscopy in Heidelberg. Acquires independence as a researcher. NPC research. Grantsmanship.

Principal Investigator and Reflections on Science
119

Freezing specimens in amorphous ice. Methods of enhancing imaging. Synthetic universe visualization software. Omega energy filtering microscopes. Field emission guns. Atomic force microscopy. Competition. Cell symmetry. Structure of the NPC. Publication strategies. Jenny E. Hinshaw. Postdocs andgraduate students. Telos of cell structure.

Muscle Cell Structure and Microtubules
156

Studying muscle cell structure with cryoelectron microscopy. Collaborates with Paula F. Flicker. Lack of evidence for the cross-bridge muscle cycle theory. Discovery of new myosins. Cell biology conferences. Interest in molecular Motors. Microtubule dynamics. Computers. Funding. Scripps Research Institute. Pure science and applied science. Johnson and Johnson. Marriage.

Index
218

About the Interviewer

Neil D. Hathaway