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Oral history interview with Michael D. Sheets

  • 2004-Mar-29 – 2004-Mar-30
Photograph of Michael D. Sheets

Michael D. Sheets, the oldest of three children, was born in West Lafayette, Indiana, while his father was studying at Purdue University. When Michael was about five, his father moved the family to East Lansing, Michigan, so that he (Michael's father) could obtain a master's degree; then they all moved back to a small town in Indiana; and the elder Sheets became a teacher of science and of industrial arts in high school. Sheets' mother had an associate's degree in accounting but chose to stay at home with her children. They lived on a very small farm, with a few animals and a large vegetable garden, and they were involved with 4H. Sheets liked to read; the family subscribed to the Time-Life Series of books, and their grandmother had a wall filled with National Geographics, both of which further increased his interests. Sheets entered Purdue unsure just what he would study. Though he was interested in many of the sciences, he did not see a clear science path in the same way that he saw certain pre-professional options, but a counselor encouraged him to get lab experience, so he worked in Morris Levy's plant ecology lab his freshman year. After that year he switched to a chicken lab where he worked on gene expression. Excited by molecular biology but still not certain where to go to graduate school, he took Brian Larkins's advice and applied to the University of Wisconsin because they could provide a good general science education, as well as illuminating the many possibilities in science. There Michael worked on polyadenylation of RNA in Marvin Wickens's lab. He stayed in Wickens's lab for an extra two-year postdoc. He also met his future wife, Catherine Fox, in Wickens's lab, and they married just before going off to their postdocs. Sheets accepted a postdoc at University of California at Berkeley, working in John Gerhart's laboratory, where he developed an antibody library for studying gene function during frog development. From Berkeley Michael and his wife had to find jobs at the same institution; the University of Wisconsin was their choice, as they love both the school and Madison, Wisconsin. Today, Sheets continues his research on regulating gene expression in vertebrate development. He works at the bench, teaches, writes grant proposals and journal articles, and ponders the applicability of his research for clinical use. In addition, he and his wife have recently adopted a young son. Balancing work life and family life in a two-scientist family is difficult at best, but with his son's appearance, this balancing has become ever more complicated, though far more rewarding.

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