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Oral history interview with Thomas E. Wilson

  • 2008-Feb-12 – 2008-Feb-13
Photograph of Thomas E. Wilson

Thomas E. Wilson's oral history begins with a discussion of his childhood in Neenah, Wisconsin where his father was a chemical engineer with Kimberley-Clark. While his father often brought work and work-related discussions home, his mother, a teacher, also encouraged the academic and inquisitive environment of the household. Nature activities, building projects, and music heavily influenced Wilson's childhood. Although there was brief interest in attending college to pursue a study of music, Wilson matriculated at the University of Wisconsin from which a number of his family members had graduated. During his undergraduate studies Wilson was involved in the Medical Scholars Program for pre-medical studies, pursued biology research with Charles B. Kaspar, and built musical instruments. The developing field of molecular biology and the excitement of research lessened Wilson's interest in pursuing the medical degree, however, Wilson decided upon a combined MD/PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis where he could continue his longstanding interest in medicine but pursue a laboratory research program as well. While Wilson acknowledges the flaws in combined programs, he still believes in the ideological and practical benefits of integrating the clinical and laboratory aspects of the two degrees. Joining Jeffrey D. Milbrant's laboratory for his PhD research, Wilson undertook a DNA binding project that allowed him to collaborate with yeast geneticist Mark Johnston. Wilson and his wife, who was also in the MD/PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis, started their family while still in graduate school, which changed the amount of time Wilson spent in the lab, but taught him an increased level of efficiency. Wilson experienced difficulty transitioning from the PhD program back to the clinical rotations of medical school, leading him to focus less on clinical work and more on research. He set his sights on pathology which enabled him to work with tissue in a medical context but not directly with patients. After earning his MD and PhD degrees, Wilson began his residency and post-doctoral research on DNA repair mechanisms with Michael R. Lieber. After Lieber moved to the University of Southern California, Wilson stayed at Washington University and used space in Milbrandt's lab in order to finish his work. He secured a position at the University of Michigan within the pathology department which would allow him ample laboratory opportunities while maintaining ties to the clinical world. Shortly after beginning as a principal investigator, Wilson earned the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award. Throughout the oral history interview Wilson discussed funding, balancing clinical and laboratory duties and work and family, and the public understanding of science.

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