George C. Prendergast

Born: August 25, 1961 | Philadelphia, PA, US

George C. Prendergast was born and raised in Philadelphia and attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he was inspired to study biochemistry by a chance exposure to James Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene. He went on to graduate research at Yale University, but becoming interested in cancer genes switched to Princeton where in Michael Cole's laboratory he cloned and characterized the first genes regulated by the Myc oncogene. As a postdoctoral fellow in Edward Ziff's laboratory at New York University, which studied oncogenic transcription factors, Prendergast defined the dimerization and DNA recognition functions of Myc required in cancer. Having moved to Merck Research Laboratories to translate these findings to cancer therapy, Prendergast soon became frustrated and left to accept an independent position at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, where he expanded his studies to encompass Ras inhibitors and programmed cell death. In seeking to merge academic and pharmaceutical efforts to pursue new therapeutic principles, Prendergast subsequently became senior director of cancer research at DuPont Pharmaceuticals, thereby becoming a principal investigator for two laboratories at Wistar and DuPont. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0584
No. of pages: 117
Minutes: 450

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
11-13 December 2000
DuPont Pharmaceuticals, Glenolden, Pennsylvania

Abstract of Interview

George C. Prendergast was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the oldest of four siblings. His father taught accounting and economics at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia; his mother worked for General Electric until Prendergast was born. From a young age he was interested in science and scientists, reading about both in the World Book Encyclopedia Childcraft series, and in music, playing the piano, the alto saxophone, the clarinet, and the flute. In high school he chose to participate in a Saturday-morning organic chemistry class, which lasted for three hours. Predergast applied to and was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in Philadelphia. As an undergraduate he read James Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene which contributed significantly to his growing interest in molecular biology. From UPenn he went on to graduate research at Yale University, though realized after a year that his research interests diverged from the faculty at Yale, so he left with a master's degree and then continued his graduate studies at Princeton University. At Princeton Prendergast worked with Michael Cole, the discoverer of the Myc gene and gene translocation in certain cancers, before moving on to a postdoctoral position with Edward B. Ziff at New York University, in part because of Ziff's desire to move in the direction of neurobiology. After a few years in Ziff's lab, Prendergast interviewed at several universities but chose to begin a career in industry at Merck Research Laboratories, a company for which his wife worked. He stayed there for a short while before moving on to the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia to research farnesyltransferase inhibitors and programmed cell death. Later he also accepted a position as the senior director in the department of cancer research at DuPont Pharmaceuticals, thereby becoming the principal investigator of two laboratories. At the end of the interview Prendergast talks about the advantages and disadvantages of working less at the bench; balancing work and family life; the work environment at Merck and DuPont; managing his two positions at Wistar and DuPont; the comparative strengths and weaknesses of academic and biotechnological science; and his current research on Myc protein and signal transduction by the Ras oncoprotein. He concludes with his thoughts on the issue of patents in science; the advantages of knowing the history of science; scientific research in academia and the commercial sector and the nature of competition in academic and commercial labs; biological hazards; and the role of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences in his work. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1983 University of Pennsylvania BA Biochemistry
1984 Yale University MS Molecular Biophysics/Biochemistry
1989 Princeton University PhD Molecular Biology

Professional Experience

New York University Medical Center

1989 to 1991
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Biochemistry, Howard Hughes Medical institute

Merck Research Laboratories

1991 to 1993
Senior Research Biochemist

Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology

1993 to 1997
Assistant Professor
1998 to 1999
Associate Professor and Assistant Chair, Tumor Biology Group
1999 to 2001
Adjunct Associate Professor

University of Pennsylvania

1994 to 2001
Adjunct Professor, Department of Genetics, School of Medicine
1994 to 2001
Graduate Group in Cellular and Molecular Biology
1995 to 2001
Cancer Center and Institute for Human Gene Therapy

DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Company

1999 to 2001
Senior Director, Department of Cancer Research

Honors

Year(s) Award
1984

National Science Foundation Fellowship Honorable Mention

1985

NIH Predoctoral Fellowship (Genetics Training Grant),Princeton University

1989

American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellowship

1995

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences Award

Table of Contents

Early Education and Family Background
1

Family background. Siblings. Early friends and interests. Love of music. Religion. Influential teachers. Middle and high school. Decides to stay in public rather than parochial school. Saturday-morning organic chemistry class. Extracurricular activities in high school.

College, Graduate School, and Postdoctoral Work
17

Interest in science on entering college. Father's education and career in teaching accounting and economics. Applying to and enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania. First years as an undergraduate. James D. Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene. Growing interest in molecular biology. Reasons for applying to graduate school at PrincetonUniversity. Enrolling as an undergraduate at Yale University. Experiences at Princeton. Working in the Michael Cole lab. His wife, Kristine K. Prendergast, and her doctoral career andResearch. Managing a two-career family. Edward B. Ziff lab at New York University. Research agenda in the Ziff lab. Decides to accept a position at Merck Research Laboratories. Wife's research at Merck.

Family Life and Working at the Wistar Institute and DuPont
38

Parental expectations. Arrival at Wistar Institute in 1993. Early projects and Funding. Startup package at Wistar. Teaching. Lab management style. Reviewing other scientists' papers. Administrative responsibilities at Wistar. Paper-writing process in the Prendergast lab. Being scooped. Traveling to conferences and knowing the right people. Working less at the bench. Accepting a position at DuPont Pharmaceuticals. Work environment at Merck and DuPont. Lab management at DuPont. Administrative responsibilities at DuPont. Managing his two PI positions. PIs working at pharmaceutical companies.

Current Research and Reflections on Science
75

Leisure activities. Current research on Myc protein and signal transduction by the Ras oncoprotein. Applicability of oncomouse findings to treating cancer in human beings. Practical consequences of his research. Future of cancer research. Patents. Role of serendipity in scientific discovery. History of science. Scientificresearch in academia and the commercial sector. Competition and collaboration in academic and commercial labs. Biological hazards. Three professional aims. Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences.

Index
114

About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen