Oral history interview with Lester F. Lau

  • 1992-Nov-06 – 1992-Nov-08

Lester F. Lau, the youngest of three children, lived in Hong Kong until he was fourteen. Lau's parents were strict, Lau was—he says—introverted, and Chinese schools stressed conformity over creativity, so when the family moved to Brooklyn Lau was able to do so well in science and mathematics that he skipped a grade. This led to difficulty in high school, as his understanding of English did not keep pace. He actually ended up seventh in his class of over 1,000, however, which was more than good enough to qualify him for City College of New York. He decided to go there in great part because it was free, but another consideration was that he had been accepted into their honors program and given a scholarship. He originally thought he might be a history major, but an organic chemistry class changed his mind. He found science to be like a puzzle or a detective story; and he was excited by the enormous addition to knowledge that science had provided. Lau began graduate school at Purdue University, studying X-ray crystallography, but he switched to molecular biology at Cornell University, entering Ray Wu's lab. He describes working with Jeffrey Roberts, manipulating synthetic DNA to study transcription and termination. Here he discusses the shift from his interest in procaryotic systems to eucaryotic systems; continuity and discontinuity in his career; and his independent research style. From there he went to Gerald Fink's lab to study yeast genetics, and he created a double-mutation yeast strain. He decided to do a postdoc in molecular biology in Daniel Nathans's lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and he received a Helen Hays Whitney Fellowship. Here Lau talks about the genesis and impact of Nathans's work on simian virus 40; the value of interacting with other fellows; and applying a molecular approach to studying cell cycle regulation. He continues with a discussion of the difficulties involved in differential hybridization; differential screening in other labs; encountering skepticism in the field; prior work on how genes activate cells; the usefulness of simple lab techniques; the reaction to Lau's findings; and the politics of scientific publishing. Lau gives his opinion about whether outsiders can still make contributions to science, grant review sections, and the status of women and minorities in science. He talks more about the reception given his papers and publication timing and the job market. He goes into his reasons for leaving Nathans's lab. At this point in his career, Lau began to hunt for a job. One criterion was his preference for big cities, so he accepted a position at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago and set up his new lab. His next peroration encompasses the role of basic research in a medical school, to wit the teaching duties of research biologists versus doing research. Lau's next move was to the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, where he is now an associate professor. He discusses sequencing cDNAs; trying to determine gene functions; and his competitors. He explains how different stimuli can activate immediate-early genes; the complex process of cell cycle regulation; the need to look beyond the tissue culture model to the organism; and how he learned to make transgenic mice. He concludes by talking about his National Institutes of Health grant reviews and his plans to explore a genetics approach to isolating immediate-early genes.

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