Recorded: 08 Aug 2001
It was remarkable. Everyone used to laugh about it because we had spent so much time together as Oregon that our individual frame of references had become congruent almost so that it wasn’t any magic about it. We knew the problems that we were trying to solve and we’d been through the conversations so many times that it became clear exactly not only what the other person was saying, but what the implications of the answer would be to the other person. So that you would have a conversation [and there] would be no comment for two hours and then someone would say, How about “BAM H 1?” Then other person [would say], “Oh, yeah, the ends!” Then there’d be another hour and then some other comment and it would be as if we were both just thinking along the same lines all through that time and tracking the same things and throwing out the same things and including the same things. And so in the middle of social gatherings, it was the most amusing thing, because we’d be with our wives and families and with many other people and one of us would say something and there would likely not be an extended conversation it would be the same way you do it in your head. It was fabulous! It was great fun and that went on for a long, long time. I always look forward to seeing Jeff , in particular, to catch little glimpses of that again. It was like having… he actually did have brothers. I only have a sister that wasn’t in the same age group, but it was like having a twin. It was comforting in a lot of ways. Because you could even take a break from thinking sometimes and know that the process was still [going on].
We tried to write the papers, in fact, the outside world started complaining that they couldn’t tell who was who. I remember Bruce, [a] cell-division cycle guy from Schizosaccharomyces at Oxford and he said, “You guys are ruining your careers cause no one can tell who’s who in this because all your names are on all the papers.”
And we said, “Yeah, that’s the we want!”
And he was adamant about it. I think part of the demise of the group from an ego standpoint had to do with other people. No one was unhappy inside but once the group’s results got to be at a certain level of visibility people wanted to point to somebody: “Was it you? Or was it you? Or was it you?” We didn’t think about it that way. I find that to be a common part of living in the world but not one that we had intended to have happen.
We never even thought it was unusual that nothing was held back. What would you rather do then tell your best friends about whatever came out of whatever experiment you were doing. Instead of keeping anything a secret, you’d run around and show them as fast as you could and get all of their input right away. And you might have your own thoughts… It would have been boring had not Amar had his own intellectual agenda. And very, very creative ideas that in fact were, in fact, different than the ones that Jeff and I usually came up with. So that was the spice, as it were, in more ways than one. It would have been fun if Jeff and I had done what we had intended to do, but we probably wouldn’t have done any more than we intended to do. With Amar around, the mix got exponentially better. Amar put our names on more papers that he could have had his name on alone than the other way around. But he wanted to participate in this whole mystique as well. I mean we all did plenty of discussing and critiquing but Amar’s line of experimentation was really his alone—was his creative genius. All we did was add speedier or more efficient techniques to the basic genetics that he wanted to do by doing some recombinant DNA things that he hadn’t concentrated on. He knew they were there. It was great if you had somebody else that was already doing those kind of experiments so you didn’t have to figure out how to do it yourself.
James Hicks is a pioneer in the field of yeast genetics. He earned his Ph.D. degree in molecular biology and genetics from the University of Oregon, working with Ira Herskowitz.
Hicks researched with Jeff Strathern and Amar Klar in the Cold Spring Harbor Yeast group from 1977 to 1984 where they made outstanding discoveries about the mechanism of mating type switching in yeast.
Hicks is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of ViroGenomics, a Portland biotech company that is searching for new treatments for chronic and acute viral disease.