Oral history interview with Michael Farrar

  • 2008-Aug-13 – 2008-Aug-14

Michael A. Farrar was born in Washington, DC, where his father was a chemist for the Bureau of Standards. Farrar's mother, a housewife, was German, and Farrar and his younger brother and sister grew up bilingual. As his father changed jobs, the family moved near to New York City, back to the DC area, and finally to Madison, Wisconsin, where the senior Farrar joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin. By that time Farrar had begun high school. He liked to read and was interested in physics and astronomy, but not so much in biology. He crewed for his high school team and continued rowing throughout college. Thinking of becoming an astrophysicist, Farrar entered the University of Wisconsin, intending to major in physics and mathematics. At the end of his junior year he attended some lectures given by Oliver Smithies and found them fascinating. In general, he found biology better taught and more interesting at the university, and so he changed his major to biology; during the summers he worked in a chicken lab trying to manipulate genes. Having started the biology program later in his undergraduate career, he decided to stay for a fifth year to complete a senior thesis. During his last semester he was diagnosed with Addison's disease. Farrar decided to attend Washington University in St. Louis for a PhD in immunology. There he began work on interferon receptors in Robert Schreiber's lab; he won the Olin Medical Scientist Foundation Fellowship. He also took up bicycle racing. Taking advice from Schreiber and a number of others, Farrar accepted a postdoc at the University of Washington, working in Roger Perlmutter's lab on Ras signaling and B-cells, as well as developing a novel, chemical-induced dimerization system. He enjoyed new outdoor activities in Seattle, Washington, and continued biking as well. After Farrar had been in Seattle for about four years, Perlmutter moved to Merck and Company, taking most of his lab, including Farrar, with him. There Farrar was able to design his own lab, to interview and recommend for hire the lab staff and technicians, and to buy whatever equipment he wanted. He learned a great deal about setting up and managing a lab from this experience. He was able to continue his previous work there too, but he had to find new athletic activities, this time rock climbing and ballroom dancing. He also met his future wife, a medical student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. When it was time to look for a job Farrar had an offer from the University of Minnesota, and his wife was able to transfer her residency. At the end of the interview Farrar discusses his continuing work on STAT; the politics of publishing; ethics in science; the increase in administrative duties, with its corresponding decrease in time for bench work; grants in general; the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award in particular (and its annual meetings); recruiting students and getting his lab going; and patents. He describes how he tries to balance work life with spending time with his two children and his wife. He concludes his interview by discussing his newest work and its implications for human leukemia.

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