Oral history interview with Stephen J. Elledge

  • 1995-Aug-16 – 1995-Aug-18
Photo of Stehen J. Elledge

Stephen J. Elledge was born in Paris, Illinois. He had two older sisters and an older half sister. He attended Roman Catholic elementary school but rebelled against the religious teaching and switched to public schools. From a young age, he was interested in science; Elledge’s grandmother bought him chemistry kits, and he made rockets. Elledge’s high school had very good science and mathematics classes, and he loved chemistry (“fun” he calls it). He was on the chemistry team, on which he won the individual and team competitions.

He was the first in his family to go to college, and he did not have enough guidance to know what he could or should do, so he entered the University of Illinois intending to major in chemical engineering. He won the chemical engineering prize as a freshman, but then switched his major to chemistry. By his junior year he’d taken all the chemistry courses, and recombinant DNA was just becoming the hot topic in biology, so when he went to University of Southampton for his junior year he took a genetics course. During his senior year he took a biochemistry class, which he found combined chemistry and his new interest in biology, and he officially switched to biology for graduate school. He decided to apply to Harvard University for graduate school, but he ended up going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which people said was the best place in the world. There he worked in Graham Walker’s lab, combining molecular biology and genetics. He did his first cloning there and became interested in methodologies for cloning.

Stanford University offered him a postdoc in Ronald Davis’ lab, where he first began work in plants, but soon switched to yeast. He became convinced that it was important to find out how cyclin-dependent kinases that run the cell cycle were regulated, with a view toward an intersection between cell cycle and cancer. While at Stanford Elledge met his future wife, Mitzi Kuroda, herself a scientist.

Elledge accepted an assistant professorship at Baylor College of Medicine, where he has since advanced to associate and then full professor. He has brought some technological advances to genetics, and he and his lab discovered inhibitor molecules, especially the tumor suppressor p21, the first mammaliam inhibitor. It was a new field then, but in the few years since publication, Elledge estimates that others have published perhaps a hundred papers on the subject. Elledge himself has continued his interest in what these molecules actually do, now that they have mostly been found. He has been selected a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Associate Investigator; he continues to publish; he has won numerous awards, including the Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences Award. Most importantly, he attempts to balance his life at work with his life at home with his wife and two children.

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