Bruce J. Nicholson

Born: February 3, 1954 | Rockhampton, AU

Bruce J. Nicholson was born in Queensland, Australia, where he focused on science through school, though he also enjoyed participating in school plays and debate. After receiving his bachelor's from the University of Queensland, he had his first independent research experience in John Mansbridge's laboratory; he went on to be mentored by Burt Zerner, an enzymologist, and Robert L. Blakely, completing an honors thesis on inhibition kinetics in jack bean urease. He studied neurobiology at Caltech, and remained there for his postdoctoral studies. He then earned a faculty position at the State University of New York, Buffalo, where he worked with Daniel B. Gros on gap junction proteins. He discusses his research, his experience as a Pew scholar, and his family. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0574
No. of pages: 195
Minutes: 500

Interview Sessions

14 and 16-18 March 1994
State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York

Abstract of Interview

Bruce J. Nicholson was born in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia, in the middle of a hurricane, but was raised, principally, in Brisbane, the younger of two brothers. His mother was a bank teller until she wed; his father was in insurance sales until he opened his own insurance loss adjuster consultancy. Both of his parents believed in the value of a good education and encouraged both sons to excel, though in whatever direction they chose. Nicholson had a normal childhood, and learned that he had some athleticism (running track for some time). He had a general interest in science and focused on that through school, and he also enjoyed participating in school plays and debate. He matriculated at the local university (staying local was quite common in Australia), the University of Queensland from which he received his baccalaureate in science. He had his first independent research experience in John Mansbridge's laboratory, during which time he learned that he did not have the best experimental "hands"; he went on to be mentored by Burt Zerner, an enzymologist, and Robert L. Blakely, completing an honors thesis on inhibition kinetics in jack bean urease in Zerner's lab. Wanting to do graduate studies in the United States Nicholson applied to several universities, including the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) at which his brother had already matriculated for his graduate studies. He was accepted at Caltech and decided to pursue studies in neurobiology; he was initially assigned to do a rotation with John D. Pettigrew on horseradish peroxidase retroactive tracing of neuronal pathways, but then moved on to work with Jean-Paul Revel researching gap junction proteins. Nicholson remained at Caltech for his postdoctoral studies, and also worked with Norman Davidson; he sequenced connexin 26. From Caltech he moved on to a faculty position at the State University of New York, Buffalo, where he worked with Daniel B. Gros to publish evidence of the existence of more than one gap junction protein. For the remainder of the interview, Nicholson talks about trying to alert the scientific community to the importance of gap junction research; difficulties in crystallizing gap junction proteins; his collaboration with Klaus Willecke, and the generosity of David L. Paul, Eric C. Beyer, and Willecke; and his policies on authorship in collaborations. He ends the interview with a discussion of the benefits of being a Pew scholar; the importance of electrophysiology in gap junction research; using mutagenesis to analyze the structure and function of connexins; the relationship of cell coupling to cell transformation; and the importance of his wife and family. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1975 University of Queensland BSc Biochemistry
1976 University of Queensland 1st Class Honours Enzymology
1983 California Institute of Technology PhD Cell Biology

Professional Experience

California Institute of Technology

1983 to 1986
Postdoctoral Fellow

The State University of New York, Buffalo

1986 to 1992
Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences
1992 to 1994
Director, Molecular Cell Biology Graduate Program
1992 to 1995
Associate Professor
1993 to 1995
Research Associate Professor, Department of Biological Sciences
1994 to 1996
C0-Director, Center for Advanced Molecular Biology and Immunology
1995 to 1996
Associate Chair

Honors

Year(s) Award
1976

University Medal, Queensland University

1976 to 1978

Earl C. Anthony Graduate Student Fellowship

1978 to 1983

Gordon Ross Graduate Student Fellowship

1983 to 1986

American Heart Association Postdoctoral Fellowship

1988 to 1992

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Family background. Attitudes toward higher education in Australia. Schooling. Late-blooming interest in sports. Correlation between involvement in athletics and popularity at school. Participates in debate and theater. Family expectations regarding academic performance. Early interest in science. Scientific researchas a labor of love. Fascination with space exploration. Memorable high school teachers. The importance of understanding an organism's evolutionary history. Teaching strategies Nicholson learned from his high school teachers. Biochemistry and molecular biology as fields located between pure and practical science.

College Years
38

Takes honors courses at University of Queensland. Interest in approaching the gap between molecular biology and physics/mathematics. Philip D. Nicholson's work in physics. Undergraduate course of study. Australian university system. Quality of education in the United States. Why Australian scientists choose to leave Australia. First laboratory experience in the John Mansbridge lab. Mentors Burt Zerner and Robert L. Blakely. Thesis research on inhibition kinetics in jack bean urease. Zerner's ability to ask tough questions. Technique and creativity as innate talents. Interdisciplinary research.

Graduate School
69

Accepted in the graduate program at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). John D. Pettigrew. Tracing neuronal pathways. Meets future wife, Xochitl Escarcega. Choosing Jean-Paul Revel's lab as a place to study ion channels. Revel's history and lab management style. Difficulties defining gap junctions in Drosophila salivary glands. Sequencing rat liver gap junction protein. Topology of gap junctions. Michael W. Hunkapiller's skill at reading sequences. Leroy D. Hood's lab. Nicholson's working relationships with Hunkapiller and Stephen B. Kent. Contaminants in protein's identification. Role of homology in ion channel research. Frederick Sachs and research on stretch-activated channels. Sequencing a final gap junction protein in rat liver. Revel's writing and editing Abilities. Mentoring graduate students in the lab.

Postdoctoral Work and Faculty Years
112

Postdoc arrangements with Revel and Norman Davidson. Sequencing connexin 26. Davidson's lab management style. Importance of lab meetings. Accepts a position at State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. Collegial atmosphere in the Department of Biological Sciences at SUNY Buffalo. Collaborations and feedback from scientists in the department. Nicholson and Daniel B. Gros publish evidence of the existence of more than one gap junction Protein. Collaboration with Klaus Willecke. Generosity of David L. Paul and Eric C. BeyerMichael V. L. Bennett. Preference for having graduate students outnumber postdocs in his lab.

Reflections on Scientific Career
150

Benefits of being a Pew scholar. Establishing a research focus at SUNY Buffalo. Importance of electrophysiology in gap junction research. Using mutagenesis to analyze the structure and function of connexins. Collaboration with Bernhard Dobberstein. Developing probes to study gap junctions. Relationship of cell coupling to cell transformation. Gap junction studies in the context of cancerresearch. Importance of understanding a cell's interaction with its environment. Future directions of research. Belief in the philosophy of reductionism. Importance of his wife and family.

Index
191

About the Interviewer

Neil D. Hathaway