Recorded: 17 Jan 2003
I think that was all a little bit of a shock for me in many ways having come from a position in Australia where I think that the idea of supervision in the sciences was much stronger so that you got quite a lot of direction from the people you were working with, at least in the initial stages, although I do remember and I had a reputation for being fiercely independent and going in my own direction fairly quickly, but of course I’d switched fields quite a lot when I went to Cold Spring Harbor, so I really didn’t know much about the field.
So Joe [Sambrook] sat me down and kind of threw a few out ideas around. So in my naïve way I said okay, well where are the papers that I can read that will help me understand. “Oh, there are no papers,” he said, “This is all rumor. This is all things we know.” And so this was totally different because being in Australia things were more remote and really you knew about what was happening in science from the literature not from rumor or things we know.
So that was new. I had to deal with a completely different way of thinking about how you came up with projects and so on. I remember that the first project that was suggested really in retrospect was completely naïve. So I fiddled around with it and tried to get it to work and of course it didn’t work because, as I recall, we were trying to make mutants right in the origin of replication of SV40 which was what I was working on and of course they would all be lethal, so there’s no way that that would ever have worked. But in the process of doing that I found lots of other interesting mutants of the virus, which then actually became my main project. So a little bit of naiveté in the first place didn’t actually matter in that situation because it ended up yielding something really interesting.
Merilyn Sleigh is a pharmacologist, molecular biologist and dean in the Department of Life Sciences at the University of New South Wales. After completing her Ph.D. at the University of Sydney in pharmacology and another PhD in molecular biology at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), she came to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to work under Joe Sambrook as a postdoctoral fellow researching the protein production of SV40. She returned to CSIRO, establishing one of the first laboratories in Australia using genetic engineering approaches to study influenza virus structure, evolution and gene regulation. She has become involved in developing the biotechnological industry in Australia. Sleigh is founding director of the Australian Biotechnology Association and is currently Chief Executive of EvoGenix, a start-up biotechnology company located in Australia.