Michael K. Skinner

Born: May 12, 1956 | Redmond, OR, US

Michael K. Skinner won a wrestling scholarship to Warner Pacific College, but left the sport to focus on studying. His chemistry teacher, William Davis, persuaded Skinner to transfer to Reed College, where he shifted his interest from radiation chemistry to biochemistry. Skinner went to Michael Griswold’s lab at Washington State University, where he learned biochemistry techniques and picked up molecular biology. He began his life’s work in reproductive biology, working in proteins. Finishing his PhD in three years, he continued his focused approach in Irving Fritz’s lab at C.H. Best Institute at University of Toronto, learning a great deal of physiology. Skinner worked on Sertoli cells, and he found a mesenchymal conductor in testis. During his postdoc he had seven to ten publications. Skinner was recruited to Vanderbilt University’s large, excellent reproductive unit by Marie-Claire Orgebin-Crist.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0751
No. of pages: 28
Minutes: 140

Interview Sessions

Arnold Thackray and Richard Sawyer
4 March 1990
Coral Gables, Florida

Abstract of Interview

Michael K. Skinner grew up in Pendleton, Oregon, the oldest of five boys. His father was an insurance salesman and his mother a housewife. Although he did well in school he was really interested in sports, and wrestled in high school. He wrote a paper on plant biochemistry and decided to be a scientist, knowing even then that he would need a PhD.

Skinner won a wrestling scholarship to Warner Pacific College, but he quit wrestling to have time for studying. His chemistry teacher, William Davis, persuaded Skinner to transfer to Reed College, where he did well. He also shifted his interest from radiation chemistry to biochemistry. During this time, in addition to writing fifteen papers, he married his high-school sweetheart and became a father.

Wanting to be in the lab of a young, enthusiastic professor, Skinner went to Michael Griswold’s lab at Washington State University, where he learned biochemistry techniques and picked up molecular biology. He began his life’s work in reproductive biology, working in proteins. Finishing his PhD in three years, he continued his focused approach in Irving Fritz’s lab at C.H. Best Institute at University of Toronto, learning a great deal of physiology. Skinner worked on Sertoli cells, and he found a mesenchymal conductor in testis. During his postdoc he had seven to ten publications. Skinner was recruited to Vanderbilt University’s large, excellent reproductive unit by Marie-Claire Orgebin-Crist. There he is able to continue his research in both testis and ovary.

Skinner discusses funding, one of his pet peeves, the daily demands of running a lab, and the competition with other labs. He believes that the biggest question in science, particularly in his field, is overpopulation. He says that other big questions include gene therapy, immunity, and funding protocols. He expects still to be at the bench in ten years, possibly with industry funding. His wife is a housewife and did not attend college. He keeps his work.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1979 Reed College BA Chemistry
1982 Washington State University PhD Biochemistry

Professional Experience

University of Toronto

1982 to 1984
Post Doctorate, Reproductive Biology/Biochemistry

Vanderbilt University

1984 to 1991
Assistant Professor, Pharmacology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1981 to 1982

Holland Graduate Fellow

1982 to 1984

Canadian MRC Postdoctoral Fellow

1984

Invited Symposium Speaker at the 7th International Congress of Endocrinology 

1986 to 1990

Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences Award

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Family background. Father insurance salesman, mother housewife. Oldest of five boys. Grew up in Oregon. Mostly interested in athletics in school. Paper on plant biochemistry sparked interest to be scientist. Knew he would need PhD. Good high-school chemistry teacher.

College Years
3

Wrestling scholarship to Warner Pacific College. Quit wrestling for academics. Met William C. Davis; became his assistant. Radiochemistry course at Reed College. Married high-school girlfriend. Wins Steinbeck Undergraduate Scholarship. Helps Davis teach at small colleges. Demanding school. Influence of Larry Church and William Block. Interest changes from radiation chemistry to biochemistry.

Graduate School Years
5

Works with Michael Griswold at Washington State University. Learns biochemistry techniques and picks up molecular biology. Works mostly in protein isolation and purification. Discovers reproductive biology. PhD in three years.

Postdoctoral Work
7

Irving Fritz’s lab at C.H. Best Institute at University of Toronto to work in reproductive biology and physiology. Skinner’s college minor theology; enjoys philosophy. Science provides opportunity to contribute to society, requires curiosity. Family’s religion. Funding. Sertoli cells; proteins involved in cell-cell communication. Mesenchymal and epithelial cells in testis his focus. Fifteen graduate publications; eighty hours per week in lab. Learns physiology of reproduction from Fritz. Compares European and American science. Seven to ten publications in Fritz’s lab. Number of papers important for National Institutes of Health funding.

Vanderbilt University
16

Marie-Claire Orgebin-Crist and Vanderbilt University. Startup package. Lab composition and size; pressure to grow. Minimal teaching duties and committee work. Lab environment and personalities. Jenny Darrington and female reproductive physiology. Competition. Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences award.

General Thoughts
22

“Big questions” in science and in the field. In ten years hopes still to be doing basic research. Family life and “science” life.

Index
27

About the Interviewer

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

Richard Sawyer