Thomas F. Schilling

Born: May 20, 1963 | Richmond, VA, US

Thomas F. Schilling was born in Richmond, Virginia. He matriculated into Davidson College, majoring in biology. A class in physiological psychology led to an interest in neuroscience. Schilling entered the PhD program in the University of Michigan biology department, joining the laboratory of R. Glenn Northcutt to study the neuroanatomy of the visual system. Northcutt's departure, combined with a developing interest in zebrafish, led Schilling to apply to the PhD program at the University of Oregon. There, he worked in the lab of Charles Kimmel and made neural crest lineages in zebrafish his dissertation topic. Schilling accepted a postdoc at Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, England, where he entered Philip Ingham's lab to study Drosophila and to help set up a zebrafish lab. Soon after his arrival, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard asked Schilling to work at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen, Germany, on craniofacial anomalies in zebrafish. After some time in Germany, he returned to London, where he rediscovered his interest in neural crest, but also discovered a mutation in the enzyme that synthesizes retinoic acid (RA), and RA became the second major focus of his lab. He then accepted an assistant professorship at University of California, Irvine. Schilling discusses funding in general, and the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences grant; compares the Wellcome grant with National Institutes of Health and other American grants; and reflects on benchwork, on his mentoring style, and on the necessity of informing the public about scientific endeavors.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0662
No. of pages: 130
Minutes: 445

Interview Sessions

Nicole C. Nelson
5 December 2008

Abstract of Interview

Thomas F. Schilling was born in Richmond, Virginia, the oldest of four children. His father was a forester turned Presbyterian minister, his mother a housewife. When Schilling was about five his family lived in New Haven, Connecticut, for two years while his father attended Yale Divinity School. While there, Schilling spent many days at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, giving latecomers tours of dinosaurs. In addition to dinosaurs, he loved reptiles and amphibians, but especially snakes. After Yale, the family moved to North Carolina, where they stayed until Schilling was in junior high school, at which time they moved to a small town in West Virginia. Schilling did not find his education compelling and did not apply himself until he entered college. Because his parents wanted him to have a solid liberal arts foundation and thought a small college the best place to get it, Schilling matriculated into Presbyterian-affiliated Davidson College, majoring in biology. Halfway through he changed his career plan from medicine to academics. He developed an interest in the philosophy and sociology of science; undertook hospital work for class credit; and spent summers working and playing at Yellowstone National Park. Schilling found that a class in physiological psychology led to an interest in neuroscience and so he applied to neuroscience graduate programs. Despite the lack of research lab experience at Davidson, Schilling gained acceptance into the PhD program in the University of Michigan biology department. Unpleasant faculty in the department and low morale caused the exit of nearly everyone in his entering class. Ultimately he joined the laboratory of R. Glenn Northcutt to study the neuroanatomy of the visual system. Northcutt left for the University of California, San Diego, and Schilling found a new interest in zebrafish. A chance discussion with Russell Fernald at a meeting led Schilling to apply to the PhD program at the University of Oregon and take a master's degree at Michigan. At that time, only two labs were working with zebrafish, Monte Westerfield's and Charles Kimmel's. Schilling chose Kimmel's lab because he wanted to work on neural crest, and neural crest lineages in zebrafish became his dissertation topic. Schilling accepted a postdoc at Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, England, where he entered Philip Ingham's lab to study Drosophila and to help set up a zebrafish lab. Soon after his arrival in London, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard called Schilling and asked him to work at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen, Germany, on craniofacial anomalies in zebrafish. After some time in Germany, he returned to London, where he spent several years in Ingham's lab. Schilling rediscovered his interest in neural crest, but he also discovered a mutation in the enzyme that synthesizes retinoic acid (RA), and RA became the second major focus of his lab. After an initial refusal, Schilling received a Wellcome Foundation grant, with Nigel Holder as his sponsor. During this time, however, Schilling also accepted an assistant professorship at University of California, Irvine. At that point he received two NIH grants, one for retinoic acid and one for his craniofacial work. At the end of the interview, Schilling discusses funding in general, and the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences grant specifically; he also compares the Wellcome grant with National Institutes of Health and other American grants. He praises the Pew meetings; he compares his Pew talk with other talks he has given; and he talks more about funding generally and about the effects of the funding situation on collegiality and competitiveness in labs and departments. He discusses his love of traveling and of outdoor activities like hiking, climbing, fishing, and biking. He goes on to reflect on benchwork, on his mentoring style, which he sees as engaged and helpful, and on the necessity of informing the public about scientific endeavors, which he believes is necessary but difficult. He talks a little more about publishing and study sections, recounting a story of encouragement for one of his students. He ends the interview with his thoughts about animal rights organizations and university oversight of animal research.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1985 Davidson College BS Biology
1987 University of Michigan MS Neurobiology
1993 University of Oregon PhD Developmental Biology

Professional Experience

Imperial Cancer Research Fund

1994 to 1998
Postdoctorate, Developmental Genetics under Philip W. Ingham

University College London

1998 to 1999
Wellcome Senior Research Fellow, Developmental Genetics

University of California, Irvine

1999 to 2005
Assistant Professor, Developmental and Cell Biology
2005 to 2008
Associate Professor, Developmental and Cell Biology
2008 to 2009
Professor, Developmental and Cell Biology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1987 to 1993

Neuroscience and Genetics Training Fellowships (NIH)

1994

EMBO Short Term Postdoctoral Fellowship

1994 to 1995

Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) Postdoctoral Fellowship

1995 to 1997

Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP) Postdoctoral Fellowship

1998 to 2002

Medical Research Council (MRC) Career Development Fellowship

1998 to 2002

Wellcome Research Career Development Fellowship

2001 to 2005

Pew Scholarship in the Biomedical Sciences

2001 to 2007

March of Dimes 1-FY01-198 Research Grant

2001 to 2009

NIH R01 NS41353-01 Research Grant (renewed in 2006)

2001 to 2009

NIH R01 DE13828-01 Research Grant (renewed in 2006)

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Lived in Virginia; then in North Carolina. Moved to West Virginia when in junior high school. Family background. Schools. Father a Presbyterian minister and ex-forester. Always interested in science. Loved animals, especially dinosaurs,snakes, and other reptiles. Lived surrounded by woods and creeks.

College Years
7

Matriculated into Davidson College, majoring in biology. Parents insisted on small liberal arts education. Originally thought he would go into medicine but changed to academics. Lack of research labs at Davidson. Life and classes in a small college in a small town. Interest in philosophy and sociology of science. Hospital work. Summer work and play at Yellowstone National Park.

Graduate School
17

Entered University of Michigan biology department. Required to be teaching assistant. Faculty in department; morale. Exit of his entire entering class. Class in physical psychology led to interest in neuroscience. Master's thesis work on neuroanatomy of visual system with R. Glenn Northcutt. Northcutt left for University of California, San Diego. Schilling remained to finish work. Zebrafish. Scientists' understanding of anatomy. Quality of pictures in journals.

Oregon Years
44

Interest in zebrafish led Schilling to University of Oregon to complete PhD. Met Russell Fernald. Developmental neurobiology. Only two labs working with zebrafish. Rotations. Chose Charles Kimmel's lab. Mauthner neuron. Settled on research into neural crest. Segmentalism. Rhombomeres. Comparing fly genes with human genes. Names for phenotypes. Clinical relevance of neural crest. Cleft palate. Brain sutures. Craniofacial syndromes. Ephrins. Neural crest lineages in zebrafish his dissertation topic. Other neural crest defects. Staging for zebrafish. Zebrafish book. Feeding and care of zebrafish. Kimmel's management and mentoring style. Lab environment.

Postdoc Years
72

Accepted postdoc at Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, England. Entered Philip Ingham's lab to study Drosophila and to help set up zebrafish lab. Uncertainty over zebrafish as model system. Segment polarity in flies. Polyploid cells. Development of in situ zebrafish protocols. Spent six months at Max Planck Institute in Tübingen, Germany, working on craniofacial anomalies in zebrafish in Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard's lab. Several years in Ingham's lab. Interested again in neural crest. Also discovered mutation in enzyme that synthesizes retinoic acid (RA); RA became second focus of lab. Hindbrain disruption. Wellcome Foundation grant.

Faculty Years
88

Discussion of funding. Backup plan. Wellcome grant compared with National Institutes of Health and other American grants. Difficulty getting Wellcome grant. Nigel Holder his sponsor. Accepted assistant professorship at University of California, Irvine. Received NIH grants for retinoic acid and craniofacial work. Discussion of grant-writing in general, Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences grant specifically. Pew meetings. His Pew talk, compared with other talks. More about funding generally. Effects of funding situation on collegiality and competitiveness in labs and departments. Outdoor activities,  travel. Biking to work. Benchwork. His mentoring style. Informing public necessary but difficult. More about publishing. Chemokines. Morpholinos. Animal rights organizations and university oversight.

Index
126

About the Interviewer

Nicole C. Nelson