Thomas L. Ortel

Born: August 27, 1957 | Greenfield, IN, US

Thomas L. Ortel grew up in on a farm in Indiana. Weekly allergy shots and chicken butchering influenced his early interest in biology. Ortel attended Indiana University for  microbiology and chemistry. He enrolled in the MD/PhD program at IU, where he entered the Frank W. Putnam lab to study protein chemistry. Ortel next studied hematology/oncology at Duke University Medical Center; he liked the camaraderie and the focus on connections between research and clinical practice. While an intern and resident he performed an eye-opening rotation in infectious disease in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He stayed at Duke for a fellowship and soon joined the faculty. He discusses funding, writing, teaching and administrative responsibilities, ethnic and gender makeup of his lab and fellow faculty, lab management, and clinical versus research work. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0534
No. of pages: 96
Minutes: 450

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
24-26 October 2000
Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Abstract of Interview

Thomas L. Ortel grew up in on a farm in Indiana, the oldest of three children. His extended family lived in the corners of the farm. He and his siblings and cousins had farm chores to do, but then they were able to range all over the farm. Ortel attended a Lutheran two-room school with four grades in each room, ten children in his class. He always liked school, and he did well, except for penmanship. Religion was important through these years, but he made the transition from a Lutheran private school to a public secondary school, ten students in his class to about 150, pretty easily. Weekly allergy shots and chicken butchering on the farm provided scope for an early interest in science, especially biology. Ortel attended Indiana University (IU), finishing with a double major in microbiology and chemistry. Never interested in other schools, he enrolled in the MD/PhD program at IU, where he entered the Frank W. Putnam lab to study protein chemistry. He describes his first years of medical school at Bloomington, Indiana, and his clinical rotations. Ortel chose to study hematology/oncology at Duke University Medical Center; he liked the support and camaraderie there, as well as the fact that people seemed to connect basic science research to clinical practice (and, of course, the climate). During his three years as intern and resident he performed an eye-opening rotation in infectious disease in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Having become interested in coagulation, he decided to stay at Duke for a fellowship and from that point joined the Duke faculty. He discusses his lab's funding and funding in general; how he writes grants and journal articles; his teaching and administrative responsibilities; the ethnicand gender makeup of his lab and the faculty at Duke University Medical Center; and his lab management. He describes a typical workday, including some of his leisure activities. Ortel continues with details about his current research on Factor VIII and interactions between immune systems and clotting mechanisms, and he explains the genesis of his ideas. He believes his medical practice has a very important influence on his basic research; conversely, he is mindful of searching for practical applications of his research. He answers the interview questions about current issues in science: patents; competition; ethics and the enforcement of laboratory ethics; genetic engineering; and the appropriate overseers of science. He loves the science he does and is accepting of the fact that there is always more to do, that one cannot ever catch up to his aspirations. He wishes he had more leisure time, but concedes that it is a matter of balance. If he could not be a scientist Ortel would stay in academics, in astrophysics or archaeology or anthropology. Future research and professional goals include settling his lab members in their own labs; developing more of a network of medical practitioners who recognize the importance and use of clotting; and finding a better balance in his own life. He feels that the Pew Scholars inclusion of MD/PhD scholars is an excellent acknowledgement of the importance of connecting the clinical and research aspects of medicine. Ortel concludes his interview with a graceful nod to how important and engaging the Pew Scholars oral history interview process is. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1979 Indiana University Bloomington BS Microbiology
1983 Indiana University Bloomington PhD Biochemistry
1985 Indiana University Bloomington MD

Professional Experience

Duke University Medical Center

1988 to 1991
Fellow, Division of Hematology/Oncology
1991 to 1993
Associate in Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology
1993 to 1998
Assistant Professor, Department of Hematology/Oncology
1994 to 2001
Assistant Professor
1995 to 2001
Medical Director, Clinical Coagulation Laboratory
1999 to 2001
Associate Professor, Division of Hematology
1999 to 2001
Medical Director, Platelet Immunology Laboratory


Year(s) Award

Phi Beta Kappa

1981 to 1982

Indiana University Combined Degree Fellowship


Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Childhood, College, and Pursuing an MD/PhD

Family background. Early schooling. Childhood leisure activities. Father's farm. School. Religion. Transitioning from a Lutheran private school to a public secondary school. Interests in high school. Interest in medicine. Parental expectations. Influential teachers. Indiana University. Enrolling in the MD/PhDprogram. Classwork in the MD/PhD program. Work in the Frank W. Putnam lab studying protein chemistry. Medical school at Bloomington, Indiana. Clinical rotations. Interpreting evidence accurately in clinical work. Studies hematology/oncologyat Duke University Medical Center. Internship and residency. Rotation in Muhimbili, Tanzania. Interest in travel. Visits Olduvai Gorge.

Clinical Work, Research, and Scientific Practice

Interest in coagulation and hemophilia mutations. Funding. Writing grants and journal articles. Benefits and drawbacks to different types of funding. Allocation of time. Teaching responsibilities. Faculty at Duke University Medical Center. Lab management. Administrative responsibilities. Travel. Leisure activities.

Current Research and Reflections on Science

Current research on Factor VIII, interactions between immune systems, and clotting mechanisms. Genesis of his ideas. Role of serendipity in science. Value of medical practice on basic research. Practical applications of his research. Patents. Competition. Genetic engineering. Being a PI. Future research andprofessional goals. Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences


About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen