Robert D. Nicholls

Born: March 1960 | Ballarat, AU

Robert D. Nicholls was born in a small town near Melbourne, Australia. H wanted to study science, particularly biology, and he chose the University of Melbourne. During his first three years he worked on programmed experiments; in his fourth year, he worked in Barrie Davidson's lab on tyrosine amino acid biosynthesis in E. coli. Nicholls won the Royal Commission fellowship to work with David Weatherall. He went to work in Douglas Higgs' lab to study genetic disease involving brain function. Finally settling on the genetics of retardation, in particular Prader-Willi and Angelman syndromes, he chose Harvard as the best place to continue. He found Harvard aggressively competitive, and finally settled at Case Western University as an associate professor in genetics. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0562
No. of pages: 106
Minutes: 500

Interview Sessions

Andrea R. Maestrejuan
3-5 September 1997
Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio

Abstract of Interview

Robert D. Nicholls was born in a small town near Melbourne, Australia, one of four children. His father was in the Forests Commission, so the family moved fairly often until Robert's parents divorced when he was a teenager, at which time Mrs. Nicholls and the children moved to Inverloch, a town near the ocean. Though they moved often, they stayed within Victoria, and all the towns they lived in were small. As a result, Nicholls grew up loving the countryside and animals. He and his brother collected and raised frogs and tortoises. Schools were of variable quality; his last year in high school turned out to have some very good teachers for his interests, already science and medicine. He attributes his interest in part also to his sister's illness, which kept her in hospital for six or seven years when she was a child. Nicholls wanted to study science, particularly biology, and he chose the University of Melbourne as the best school in the area. He found that he needed new study habits; he also needed a new sport, as he had quit Australian football and cricket, so he took up running, which he pursues to this day. During his first three years his lab work consisted of doing programmed experiments; in his fourth—honors—year, for which he had to qualify, he did his first real lab work. He worked in Barrie Davidson's lab on tyrosine amino acid biosynthesis in E. coli. He wanted to go to England after his fourth year, but the school year was different, so he spent eight months working, first delivering auto parts and then tutoring biochemistry. Nicholls won the Royal Commission fellowship to work in David Weatherall's department. He went to work in Douglas Higgs' lab to study genetic disease involving brain function; he had 18 papers before finishing his PhD. Finally settling on the genetics of retardation, in particular Prader-Willi and Angelman syndromes, he chose Harvard as the best place to continue. He accepted a postdoc in Samuel Latt's lab because Latt was working with humans, not mice. He found Harvard aggressively competitive; when Latt died unexpectedly Nicholls left for University of Florida. He met Jacqueline Kreutzer, his fiancée, there, but otherwise did not find the support he desired, and he has now arrived at Case Western University as an associate professor in genetics. His fiancée, a pediatric cardiologist, is in Boston, Massachusetts, which adds to the complications suffered by two-career couples. Angelman and Prader-Willi syndromes are random and so not preventable. Nicholls, who is close to his patients and their families, hopes that since neurological diseases are not amenable to gene therapy, an understanding of molecular mechanisms will eventually be helpful in treatment if not prevention. He is working on the implications of imprinting, collaborating with Bernhard Horsthemke's lab. He continues to write grants, publish, and run. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1980 University of Melbourne BSc
1986 University of Oxford DPhil

Professional Experience

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

1987 to 1989
Research Fellow, Pediatrics

Harvard Medical School

1987 to 1989
Research Fellow, Department of Pediatrics

University of Florida

1990 to 1993
Assistant Professor, Departments of Neuroscience and Pediatrics
1993 to 1995
Courtesy Associate Professor

Case Western Reserve University

1993 to 1998
Associate Professor, Department of Genetics

Honors

Year(s) Award
1989

Postdoctoral Clinical Research Award, American Society of Human Genetics

1990

Outstanding Achievement and Performance Award, State University System

1991 to 1998

Elected member, Human Genome Organisation

1990 to 1993

Basil O'Connor Fellow, March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation

1991 to 1995

Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences Grant

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, second of four children. Father in Forests Commission. Mother a nurse until children born. Moved often, but always lived in small towns or rural areas in Victoria. Loved nature and animals. Some good teachers, especially in last year of high school. Sister's long-term illness causingher to live in hospital. Parents' divorce. Move to Inverloch, near ocean.

College Years
21

Began in science track. Wanted to switch to medicine, but changed mind when observing body parts. Fourth year in Barrie Davidson's lab studying E. coli convinced him he wanted to do science. Finished honors year. Spent summer delivering auto parts and tutoring biochemistry.

Graduate School Work
32

Won Royal Commission fellowship to University of Oxford. Worked in Douglas Higgs' lab in David Weatherall's department. Interested in genetic disease involving brain function. Eighteen papers before finishing PhD. Higgs' mentorship. Taking up running. Becomes interested in genetics of mental retardation; stays another year as postdoc.

Postgraduate Years
55

Takes postdoc at Harvard University in Samuel Latt's lab. Howard Hughes Medical Investigator award. General air of competitiveness at Harvard. Sabotage? Latt's unexpected death. Settles on Prader-Willi and Angelman syndromes.

Faculty Years
67

Accepts assistant professorship at University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. Learns to write grants. Collaboration with Bruce Lamb. Wins a number of smaller grants, including Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences award. Focuses on imprinting abnormalities. Meets Jacqueline Kreutzer, pediatric cardiologist, who becomes his fiancée. Continues to run. Decides to acceptassistant professorship at Case Western Reserve University.

General Observations
88

Comparison of science and funding in United States, England, and Australia. Lab management and composition. Finding imprinting. Implications of imprinting. Commuter relationship with fiancée. Collaboration and competition. Admiration for his patients and their families.

Index
103

About the Interviewer

Andrea R. Maestrejuan