Digital Collections

Oral history interview with John D. Altman

  • 2006-Jan-30 – 2006-Jan-31
  • 2006-Feb-01

John D. Altman was born and raised in Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. He and his sister, two years younger, attended public schools, where, without parental prodding (or so he remembers), both were good students. He had an inspiring literature class in high school but remembers no inspirational classes in the sciences. His family belonged to a Hebrewless temple where the rabbi had established the Society for Humanistic Judaism; Altman was bar mitzvah there in an unusual ceremony.

Altman had planned to attend medical school after obtaining an electrical engineering degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after which he would work on medically related things, but by what he calls incremental steps he reverted to biology. Soon after beginning college he switched majors to chemistry, working in Michael Marletta’s toxicology laboratory throughout his college career. Extracurricular activities included fishing in Gloucester, biking, and playing intramural hockey on his fraternity’s team. During his junior year he realized that he wanted to go into research, not medicine, and he decided to attend the University of California, San Francisco, for graduate school; his two influences for this decision were Marletta and Gregory Petsko. At the University of California, San Francisco, his doctoral research in Irwin Kuntz’s biophysical chemistry laboratory involved using two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study protein structure. Altman then discusses his experiences and project with Steve Anderson at Genentech Corporation during his postdoctoral fellowship in Mark Davis’s immunology laboratory at Stanford University. At Stanford he meets and marries his wife.

Altman continues with a discussion of his postdoctoral research on protein chemistry and immunology with T cells in the Davis laboratory; his collaborations with Oxford University studying T cells and HIV immunity; his defining moment at Oxford; and meeting Rafi Ahmed. Altman accepted a position at the Vaccine Center of Emory University and set up his lab. Altman then delves into his funding history. He explains his administrative roles at the Emory Vaccine Center and the MHC Tetramer Core Facility; he talks about his collaborations, his current research in viral immunology, and his direction of the Immunology Core Laboratory in the Vaccine Center. He explains the funding at the MHC Tetramer Core Facility and discusses his patent and his research on vaccines at the Southeastern Regional Center for Excellence in Biodefense. Altman describes his lab management style and the makeup of his lab and discusses how he would like to set the national science agenda. He concludes the interview by reflecting upon the wider context of his work, the impact of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences grant on his work, the grant-writing process, and the issues of patents, politics, religion, and ethical questions in science

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