George A. O'Toole

Born: May 16, 1966 | Port Jefferson, NY, US

George A. O'Toole grew up in rural eastern Long Island, New York. In high school he was especially encouraged by a science teacher who praised O'Toole's interests in science oriented shows like Nova and Nature . O'Toole participated in a research program for high school students at Catholic University of America in Washington  D. C. , where he was first exposed to cell biology. O'Toole matriculated at Cornell University where he worked in the microbiology research laboratory of Steven H. Zinder had a paper accepted to the Cornell Undergraduate Journal of Science . O'Toole began his graduate research as Jorge C. Escalante-Semerena's first graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, focusing his research on the genetics and biosynthesis of Vitamin B 12 . He published nine papers, learning the process of writing a scientific paper directly from Escalante-Semerena. Upon finishing his Ph.D. , O'Toole undertook his post-doctoral research with Roberto Kolter at Harvard Medical School, then accepted a position at Dartmouth Medical School and worked as a consultant for his friend's company, Microbia. O'Toole received a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences award from which have come numerous collaborations and a networking system. Throughout the interview O'Toole discusses the current climate of funding, mentoring, scientific ethics, and the importance of translational research with regard to scientific responsibility. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0400
No. of pages: 101
Minutes: 324

Interview Sessions

David J. Caruso
16-17 January 2008
Dartmouth Medical School, Hanover, New Hampshire

Abstract of Interview

George A. O’Toole grew up in rural eastern Long Island, New York, heavily influenced by his parents and their Irish and Italian immigrant families.  Throughout his youth, his parents, both in education, stressed the importance of school and attending college. In high school he was especially encouraged by a science teacher who praised O’Toole’s interests in science oriented shows like Nova and Nature. O’Toole participated in a research program for high school students at Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., where he was first exposed to cell biology. Deciding he wanted to pursue biology, O’Toole matriculated at Cornell University where he earned a position in the Cornell Tradition scholarship program. Throughout his time at Cornell he balanced his studies with his work in the Noyes dining hall. Early on O’Toole engaged in extra laboratory research and had a paper accepted to the Cornell Undergraduate Journal of Science. He worked as a dishwasher in the microbiology research laboratory of Steven H. Zinder, though ultimately conducting research on methanogenic archaea. After graduating from Cornell, O’Toole began his graduate research as Jorge C. Escalante-Semerena’s first graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, focusing his research on the genetics and biosynthesis of Vitamin B12; during what little free time he had, O’Toole became active in political campaigns. In the small Vitamin B12 field, he published nine papers, learning the process of writing a scientific paper directly from Escalante-Semerena. Upon finishing his PhD, O’Toole undertook his post-doctoral research with Roberto Kolter at Harvard Medical School, where he began his work in biofilms. While in the Kolter laboratory, O’Toole took advantage of the inquisitive scientific atmosphere and intellectual freedom fostered in the group to make his mark in this field. Although he considered working in biotechnology companies, O’Toole accepted a position at Dartmouth Medical School and opted to work as a consultant for his friend’s company, Microbia.  As soon as he started his lab, O’Toole immediately began efforts to create an environment that fostered success and creativity in his students. Shortly after arriving at Dartmouth, O’Toole received a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences award from which have come numerous collaborations and a networking system. Throughout the interview O’Toole discusses the current climate of funding, mentoring, scientific ethics, and the importance of translational research with regard to scientific responsibility.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1988 Cornell University BS
1994 University of Wisconsin, Madison PhD Microbiology

Professional Experience

University of Wisconsin, Madison

1994 to 1995
Post-Doctoral Research, Bacteriology

Harvard Medical School

1995 to 1999
Post-Doctoral Research, Microbiology and Molecular Genetics

Dartmouth College

1999 to 2005
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Biology
2005 to 2009
Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Biology

Dartmouth Medical School

1999 to 2005
Assistant Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology
2005 to 2009
Associate Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1989 to 1990

Cell & Molecular Biology Training Grant Fellow

1990 to 1991

Biotechnology Training Grant Fellow

1993

Sigrid Liermo Memorial Award, recognizing scientific mentorship

1995 to 1998

Runyon-Winchell Cancer Research Post-doctoral Fellowship

1998 to 1999

Medical Foundation Senior Post-doctoral Fellowship

2000

DuPont Young Professor Award

2000 to 2004

Pew Biomedical Scholar Award

2000 to 2005

NSFEarly Career Development Award (CAREER)

2003

Dean's Award in Basic Science, DartmouthMedical School

2007

Full Member, Dartmouth Chapter of Sigma Xi

Table of Contents

Childhood
1

Growing up in rural eastern Long Island. Influences of Irish and Italian immigrant family. Father's interest in the outdoors. Influence of the Catholic Church. Watching Nova and Nature. Summer cell biology research at Catholic University of America in Washington, D. C.

Undergraduate Education
13

Cornell University. Cornell Tradition scholarship program. Balancing laboratory work and studies. Developing interest in microbiology. Managerial experience in the dining hall. First publication. Anaerobic microbiology research with Steven H. Zinder.

Graduate Education
25

University of Wisconsin. Microbiology research with Jorge C. Escalante-Semerena. Brian M. Cali from Cornell at the University of Wisconsin. Genetics and biosynthesis of Vitamin B12. Transition from genetics to molecular biology. Writing papers. Basic science versus translational science. Political awareness. Collaborations. Madison activist culture.

Postdoctoral Research
43

Roberto Kolter. Harvard Medical School. Finishing at the University of Wisconsin. Funding. Biofilms. Scientific Risk. Intellectual freedom.

The Job Market and Becoming a Principal Investigator
55

Dartmouth Medical School. Interviews. Considering working for biotech firm Microbia. Consulting at Microbia. Teaching, advising, and laboratory management.

Funding and the Pew
61

Other Scholars at Dartmouth Medical School. Pew funding. Risk compared to NIH funding. Collaborations.

The Field of Biomedical Science
61

Scientific responsibility. Interest in translational research. Collaboration with Michael E. Zegans, M.D. Translational research and funding.

The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences
70

Collaborations. Annual Meetings. Importance of flexibility. Networking.

The State of Science in the United States
73

NIH funding. Scientists and families. Time commitments. Current funding situation. Attrition of science students. Dartmouth's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Science and minorities. Early science education. Public understanding of science.

The Obligations and Perks of a Scientific Life
82

Consultant for Nova episode on Bio-Terror. Mentoring. Scientific ethics and fraud. Reviewing articles for publication. Patents.

Index
97

About the Interviewer

David J. Caruso

David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and editor for the Oral History Review. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds an annual training institute that focuses on conducting interviews with scientists and engineers, he consults on various oral history projects, like at the San Diego Technology Archives, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.  His current research interests are the discipline formation of biomedical science in 20th-century America and the organizational structures that have contributed to such formation.