Oral history interview with Robert D. Nicholls

  • 1997-Sep-03 – 1997-Sep-05

Robert D. Nicholls was born in a small town near Melbourne, Australia, one of four children. His father was in the Forests Commission, so the family moved fairly often until Robert's parents divorced when he was a teenager, at which time Mrs. Nicholls and the children moved to Inverloch, a town near the ocean. Though they moved often, they stayed within Victoria, and all the towns they lived in were small. As a result, Nicholls grew up loving the countryside and animals. He and his brother collected and raised frogs and tortoises. Schools were of variable quality; his last year in high school turned out to have some very good teachers for his interests, already science and medicine. He attributes his interest in part also to his sister's illness, which kept her in hospital for six or seven years when she was a child. Nicholls wanted to study science, particularly biology, and he chose the University of Melbourne as the best school in the area. He found that he needed new study habits; he also needed a new sport, as he had quit Australian football and cricket, so he took up running, which he pursues to this day. During his first three years his lab work consisted of doing programmed experiments; in his fourth—honors—year, for which he had to qualify, he did his first real lab work. He worked in Barrie Davidson's lab on tyrosine amino acid biosynthesis in E. coli. He wanted to go to England after his fourth year, but the school year was different, so he spent eight months working, first delivering auto parts and then tutoring biochemistry. Nicholls won the Royal Commission fellowship to work in David Weatherall's department. He went to work in Douglas Higgs' lab to study genetic disease involving brain function; he had 18 papers before finishing his PhD. Finally settling on the genetics of retardation, in particular Prader-Willi and Angelman syndromes, he chose Harvard as the best place to continue. He accepted a postdoc in Samuel Latt's lab because Latt was working with humans, not mice. He found Harvard aggressively competitive; when Latt died unexpectedly Nicholls left for University of Florida. He met Jacqueline Kreutzer, his fiancée, there, but otherwise did not find the support he desired, and he has now arrived at Case Western University as an associate professor in genetics. His fiancée, a pediatric cardiologist, is in Boston, Massachusetts, which adds to the complications suffered by two-career couples. Angelman and Prader-Willi syndromes are random and so not preventable. Nicholls, who is close to his patients and their families, hopes that since neurological diseases are not amenable to gene therapy, an understanding of molecular mechanisms will eventually be helpful in treatment if not prevention. He is working on the implications of imprinting, collaborating with Bernhard Horsthemke's lab. He continues to write grants, publish, and run.

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