Recorded: 08 Aug 2001
We had a very specific idea of what we—Jeff and I wanted to do, which was clone the mating type genes and find out how it works. And then Jeff was very interested in the recombination aspects of that, the results that we eventually got. Jim heard about Kim Nasymth working in the same area at Seattle and suggested to us that we bring him out here and that was extremely productive. He’s in Vienna now and he’s an incredibly creative and bright guy. So that added quite a bit to the intellectual power around the lab. He was the first person though that wasn’t really part of the group. That chemistry wasn’t quite as tight as it was among Amar and Jeff and I. And then Jim Broach was a real important part of the group. He was already here in Ray Gesteland’s lab and was working on the two micron circles. He worked in our lab for a year and then went on to get a job with Arnie Levine’s department out at SUNY Stony Brook and we continued to collaborate all along. So we had quite a large community going on all the time.
It was wonderful to get up in the morning. And then I got to work and we had lots of productive conversations with Mike Wigler when he came. Our first experiments at trying to find the RAS gene from yeast weren’t sophisticated enough to do it but he then got a post doc in to work on it quite a bit harder than we had originally. And eventually that turned out to work.
The other person who was very influential in, whose work contributed a lot to understanding how mating type works was Fred Heffron. And when Fred and Maggie So came they had been both working on mutagenesis on E. Coli. And really, Fred was very good at thinking about enzymes. And so when we had to find that there had to be an enzymatic event going on in mating typing and switching, he and a post doc set to work on discovering it and discovering the biological activity. Fred’s incredibly creative at figuring out how to detect molecular interactions and BOOM! very soon he had isolated the cut molecules and they started to do the enzymology of finding the HO enzymes.
So being at the lab in specific, as opposed to being at a University—none of this could have happened without the lab being a nurturing force for science as opposed to an academic environment that creates professorships and assistant professorships and deans and that garbage. The lab was all for science and Jim [Watson] was aggressive about saying if there’s a good person, go get them. There was no question that science—and interesting science—ruled how the lab worked; not hierarchies or politics. I mean there’s politics any time you get a group larger than three people but compared to university academics the lab is a very special place. None of this could have happened without having everybody very close by and in one place. And certainly couldn’t have happened as quickly and as joyfully as it did. Even though there were independent events that led to people leaving for one reason or another, the discovery part was the word—there’s no other word to describe it than joyful. It’s exciting and it wasn’t
“A-Ha! I beat you.” The whole atmosphere was just: How can we figure this out and if the guy down the hall figures it out, everybody had a hand in it cause everybody discussed it. So everyone was the intellectual parent of all of these discoveries no matter who actually did the final work on it. I think the most important part of the whole experience is having—I used to say many fathers, but—many parents of any of these complex discoveries. And the details that go along with them. It just couldn’t have happened any place else. The fun part to me was having—if it goes back to one thing for me, it was talking to Ray and saying, “I’d rather spend two years doing this with Jeff than get a job.” Cause we didn’t think of this as a job. It was not a job. In no way was this considered a job, the way if you’d gone to a University and gotten an assistant professorship.
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.