Oral history interview with Jason G. Cyster

  • 2002-Sep-24 – 2002-Sep-26

Jason G. Cyster was born and raised in Western Australia, the younger of two brothers. Cyster lived and worked on a farm for much of his early life. His father worked as a hired laborer on others' farms before buying his own (for a time later in life he made a brief foray into software engineering—due, in part, to his elder son's interests—developing software for farmers, before returning to farm life); Cyster's mother, once the children were in school, worked first as a secretary and then as a real-estate agent. Cyster's school was a seventy-five minute bus ride from his home, so commuting to and from school, school, and work on the farm did not leave much time for activities not related to academics or farm life. He did well in his local school throughout most of his childhood; both he and his older brother went to a boarding school in nearby Perth to finish the last two years of school, principally because the local public high school was close to fifty miles away. While completing high school, Cyster obtained the highest aggregate score on Australia's Tertiary exams in his state, receiving the Beazley Award. He matriculated at the University of Western Australia to pursue science rather than veterinary medicine (his older brother was there as well, though focusing on computer science). In part, his decision to study biology was based upon his own childhood inclinations and interests (he and his mother started a piggery, and he occasionally dissected a pig), and in part on the caliber of lecturers at the university. By his third year, he developed an interest in immunology and began working in the lab of, and being mentored by, Wayne R. Thomas with whom Cyster conducted his honors thesis. After receiving a Commonwealth Overseas Studentship, Cyster decided to undertake his graduate studies at Oxford University instead of remaining in Australia. At Oxford he worked with Alan F. Williams characterizing the CD43 molecule; he also collaborated with Paul C. Driscoll and Ian Campbell on a structural analysis of the T lymphocyte CD2 antigen. Early on in his graduate study Cyster began thinking of where to do his postdoctoral work, and though Australia was certainly a consideration, Cyster also entertained the notion of going to the United States. He decided to work with Christopher C. Goodnow at Stanford University studying immunological tolerance and the follicular exclusion process. From there, he accepted a position at the University of California, San Francisco. Near the end of the interview, Cyster comments on the tenure system in the United States and in Europe; his mentoring style; the Tetrad and Biomedical Science programs at University of California, San Francisco; and the broader applications of his work. He concludes the interview with thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of competition in science; the peer review system; the role of industry in research; and the impact that the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences had, and has, on his work.

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