Marc Tessier-Lavigne on Growing Up
  Marc Tessier-Lavigne     Biography    
Recorded: 11 Sep 2008

Well, I was born in Canada in Trenton, a small town. It’s actually a military base because my father was with the Canadian Armed Forces. In fact, my childhood was one of migration because he was posted in lots of different places. First in Canada in Trenton in that area and then eventually moved into Toronto. When I was 7 years old we moved to England to London for two years. Then from there to Belgium where he was posted as well. I spent the next eight years in Belgium. My parents knew we would be moving so just to make things even more interesting; they put us in the French school system, the Lycee François. I had a French education in Canada, England and Belgium and I was thoroughly confused by the time I was ready for college.

Narrator: So, let me ask you; do you consider yourself a Canadian, a European, or an American? Who are you?


Narrator: No, who were you then?

So all those influences stay with me. I’ve been in the States now for 21 years, so I’ve made my life here in the U.S. I came here for postdoctoral work, but I feel very much a citizen of this country, but I still remain true to my Canadian roots and I retain close ties with Europe as well. In fact, after living in Belgium when I went to college, I went to Montreal first then I went back to England to Oxford. Then after another year in Canada I went back to London for my Ph.D. So I migrated back and forth between Canada and Europe until I came here for postdoctoral work.

Well, my father is French Canadian; my mother is English Canadian. So I was a product of biculturalism. They met in the military. Both of them joined the military after high school. Neither of them went to college. Soon after that, they had us. They had very wide ranging interests. My mother eventually did a college degree when she was older when the kids had left home. They grew up in very different circumstances and so we were exposed to lots of different ways of seeing the world. Although they are both from the same country, French Canada and English Canada have different cultural traditions and they brought both of those home to us and that was amplified, of course, when we moved to Europe. So it was a pretty cosmopolitan family. We knew lots of people from lots of different countries and cultures. It was a very broadening experience.

One thing we didn’t have was any exposure to science. So there were no scientists in the extended family with the exception of my grandfather who was an engineer. But really his passion was poetry. He was a geologist, in fact. So my exposure to science really didn’t come from home. It came from school and from reading.

Narrator 2: So you weren’t one of those scientific children like Oliver Sacks who had explosions and made chemicals in the little shed at the end of the garden?

That is correct. I had none of the above. What we did have, I guess I had an inclination towards mathematics as a child and that actually ran in the family especially on my father’s side. My grandmother apparently was very gifted at mathematics. It was through mathematics that I was drawn into science. It was mostly self study. I’d say in the first ten years as I got older I became more and more interested in science in general starting with physics and eventually my undergraduate degree was in physics and mathematics. But then I started drifting towards biology.

Oh, we had lots of things we liked to do. As young children my parents encouraged us to participate in outdoor events in the scouting movement. So I was a very active boy scout. You know lots of camping and things like that and in fact I became very excited by rock climbing. So through my teens and through college I did a lot of rock climbing. I was a rock climbing instructor back when I was an undergraduate. Eventually in my 20’s I stopped doing that, but that was a big part of my life in those days.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a pioneer in developmental neurobiology, is currently president of The Rockefeller University in New York, where he heads the Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair, and oversees 70 independent laboratories that operate within the university. He is the first industry executive to serve as president of Rockefeller. He joined Genentech, Inc. in 2003 as Senior Vice President, Research Drug Discovery, and was promoted to Executive Vice President, Research Drug Discovery in June, 2008. In that capacity, he was responsible for research management of all therapeutic areas of research, including a team of 1,400 researchers and his own research lab. His research at Genentech on the development of the brain uncovered details of how Alzheimer's disease is triggered.

Born in Canada in 1959, he was also raised in Belgium and the UK, and has lived in the US since 1990. Marc completed an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from McGill University (B.Sc., 1980), and a second undergraduate degree in philosophy and physiology from Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar, B.A., 1982). Prior to earning his Ph.D. at University College London (1986) in neurophysiology, Marc became the national coordinator of the Canadian Student Pugwash Organization, which promotes awareness and action relating to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, and other ethical implications of science and technology policy. During his postdoctoral work at UCL and Columbia University, Marc’s research focus became developmental neurobiology. From 1991 to 2001 he was on the faculty at the University of California, San Francisco.

From 1994 to 2003 he was also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His famous discovery of the netrins (a class of proteins involved in axon guidance) occurred in 1994 while he was at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2000 he co-founded the biopharmaceutical company Renovis. From 2001-2003 he was the Susan B. Ford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of Biological Sciences and a professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University.

Among the many awards Marc has received for his work in neuroscience are the McKnight Investigator Award (1994), the Ameritec Prize (1995), the Foundation IPSEN Prize for Neuronal Plasticity (shared, 1996), the Viktor Hamburger Award, International Society for Developmental Neuroscience (1997), the Wakeman Award for spinal cord injury research (shared, 1998), the Robert Dow Neuroscience Award (2003), and the Reeve-Irvine Research Medal (shared, 2006). Tessier-Lavigne has been elected a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences in the United Kingdom.

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