What was your first job?
My first real job was at a Safeway grocery store; I started in high school, and basically worked there throughout college. One of the obstacles of going to away to college was needing to find a way to pay for it myself. In those days, you actually could pay for school and room and board with the amount of money you made over a summer vacation; this is impossible now.
There were good and bad aspects of that grocery store job. It could be mind-numbing work, but it also made me realize that I wanted to actually go into something creative. The other good side of being bored is that you have to find fun and inventive ways to keep your wits about you. For instance, occasionally all the young employees in the store would conspire to send everyone who asked the location of an item to aisle four; within a half hour, 90 percent of the people in the store were jammed into aisle four. We did other mischievous things to keep ourselves entertained, but I’m afraid if I highlighted them all here, some readers might be reluctant to visit their local grocery store.
The other good aspect of the job, obviously, was that I was able to pay my way through the University of California San Diego, so the work had very real value. I lived near the beach for a few years, and then I went to graduate school at Harvard – which was a completely different cultural and climatic experience for a small town, scrawny Californian kid. When I left San Diego for Boston, the warmest thing I owned was a sweatshirt. Luckily, I lived right next to an Army Navy surplus store in Boston, so every day I’d walk out of the apartment, see how cold it was, and walk over to the store to buy warmer clothes. Unfortunately, this clothing style has pretty much prevailed in my wardrobe ever since.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in a small town in California. My childhood was filled with sports, books, and near endless sinus infections. I was often sick but it never deterred me too much. I was regularly kidded for weighing all of two pounds and having an extremely high voice (my nickname was “Squirrel” as in Rocky and Bullwinkle). I was a bit of a nerd – and still am – but my saving grace was that I was a good athlete, so they couldn’t give me too hard of a time.
Do you still play sports?
I play pretty much any sport with a ball, and I try to exercise most days. I guess I’m an exercise nut. In the summers, I often try to do the trifecta of biking before work, playing tennis after work, and then fitting in a few holes of golf or another bike ride. It keeps me fit physically, but I’m also the type of person who can’t just sit in one place and relax, so it keeps me sane, too. If I just sit in a beach chair, I’ll start obsessing about work, about what I’m doing wrong or what I’m about to do wrong, so I like to occupy my mind in other ways – like focusing on a tennis ball or not crashing into cars on my bike.
We’re also a pretty active family; we take a yearly trip to Bend, Oregon, where we go hiking, biking, trout-fishing, kayaking, and playing tennis and golf – it’s basically all activities from sunrise to sunset. It’s our family’s idea of heaven.
Was anyone in your family in medicine?
No. My dad comes from an immigrant family from Croatia, and my mom migrated from Oklahoma to California à la The Grapes of Wrath, living in tents and worse. There was no one at all in the sciences or academia, or any advanced education, but they encouraged me to keep going to school. My dad was convinced that I should be an orthodontist because, after paying for braces for my sister and me, he was sure that orthodontics was the best racket in the world.
The prospect of dealing with people’s mouths all of the time just held no appeal for me, not to mention that people would dread having to see me. Of course, now I’m a bone marrow transplanter, so it’s not like I’m the Good Humor Man.
When did you decide to go into medicine? Were you always interested in it?
Like many undergraduates, I had a variety of things I thought I wanted to do. I started college as a philosophy and physics major, and somewhere along the line I decided that I was going to be a writer. I got into graduate courses in creative writing, with Toni Morrison and Ursula LeGuin as guest professors. At the time, Morrison was an editor at Random House. She would read our writing and once said, “Eighty percent of the books we publish are solicited,” which was code for “Don’t give up your day jobs.” After that, I realized I should probably look into something else.
In my last year of school, I started working at a free clinic because I was interested in helping people, liked the political vibe, and found I really enjoyed the clinical work with patients. This was in the mid-1970s, so I received all of the training needed to perform histories, physicals, and draw cultures in a couple of weeks – things that you would need four years and a license to do today.
During graduate school, I studied epidemiology because I was interested in mapping diseases. I took many courses with the medical students in that program, and my interest in helping people continued to grow. I decided at that point to pursue a career in academic medicine.
Were there any particular mentors who helped shape your career?
The person that actually got me really interested in science and academics was Jack Bradbury, PhD, an evolutionary biologist. He changed my way of thinking about, virtually, all of life – everything from behavior to genetics to diversity through an evolutionary focus. That was a real turning point for me, even though it wasn’t directly in the medical field. I still think about cancer as an evolutionary problem, and that was my first real push in that direction.
As an intern, there were so many more people who impacted my career, like Steve Collins, MD, in whose lab I started. Steve is a great scientist, writer, and just a gem of a human being. When I started at the Hutch, the director was Nobel prize-winner E. Donnall Thomas, MD, who was absolutely inspiring: brilliant, humble, funny, fair, and hardworking. Every day you wanted to make Don proud.
What advice would you give people just getting started in their medical career?
Do something that you are interested in and enjoy. Don’t pick a field or specific line of research because it’s “hot” at the moment or because the person running the lab is famous if it’s not what you truly want to do. That’s setting yourself up for being unhappy, which is a pretty quick route to failure. To succeed you are going to spend a lot of time and effort at your workplace, so you need to really enjoy the work and the environment. Plus, what’s insanely hot in science this month may just be insane next year.
Like any other career, the only way to succeed in the academic field is through hard work and persistence. It’s not unlike doing well in baseball: if you bat .300, you’re going to the Hall of Fame, but if you bat .200, you’re out of a job. In academia, most ideas are going to be wrong, and, even if they are right, they don’t work in the lab. So, perseverance and hard work are essential – as is handling those failures.
Everyone deals with success well; how you deal with failure is a lot more important. Of course, that’s a lot easier to do if you think what you are doing is fun, interesting, and has purpose.
What lessons has your life in medicine taught you?
Every day in our field, we see patients and families whose lives were changed in a moment into something more horrible and stressful than we can imagine. So, if that tells us anything, it’s that life is too short. We really should enjoy our time, and try to do good. That sounds really glib, but it’s true and it should inform a lot of what we do.
What’s the best part of your day? What’s the worst part of your day?
Well, at my age waking up alive every morning is pretty great. I have to say, I enjoy my days. I consider myself amazingly lucky: I have a fantastic family, a wonderful place to work, and great colleagues and friends. My wife is an academic psychiatrist, and she is wonderfully supportive and helpful, as I can get into the Slavic brooding rut pretty quickly. We have interesting, fun, and kind kids, who actually still like to talk to their parents, which is kind of a gift.
Again, I consider myself very, very lucky. But for a few breaks, I could still be working night crew at Safeway. Basically, it’s hard to find a “worst” part, especially since I’ve just come off transplant service where people have real problems. The things that occasionally irk me are pretty darned inconsequential in the big picture.
How do you balance work and life? What makes finding that balance difficult?
Well, the good thing about modern life is that it’s easy to communicate and stay on the job; the bad thing is that it’s too easy to stay on the job. It can be a trap, but I’ve tried to use it to my advantage. There are things that I can do mindlessly at home and things that need to be done in the context of the workplace, so I think I’ve found a balance where I’m able to leave the office at a reasonable hour, go home and enjoy my family, and then do those mindless tasks at night.
Obviously, I try to spend as much time as possible with my family, but I also have another family at the lab. When I first started running the lab, I had no idea that it was like running a small business. Our lab now has 18 children under 10 years of age, and I view it as my responsibility to keep shoes on all their feet. I would never have imagined being too concerned about that 20 years ago.
Do you think that having your own family has changed how you run your lab?
One advantage of having a family and having gone through these situations is that I better understand the full scope of family commitments that may require my team shifting schedules or priorities from time to time. So, in my lab, I expect our team members to take care of themselves and their families and I assume they will get their work done on their own schedule.
Everyone is basically independent. I would never pretend to be an authority on how to run a lab, but we keep getting grants, and most people stay, so something must be going right. If nothing else, I can be an example of surviving parenthood with my wits relatively intact.
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
I’m a minister of the Universal Life Church, and I’ve presided over about a dozen weddings.
When did you decide to become ordained?
During my internship, one of my fellow interns had a patient who was hospitalized on her wedding date – and this had been the second or third time that happened and the wedding had to be rescheduled. So, having heard about this, he quickly became ordained and performed her wedding ceremony in the hospital. In the next few years quite a number of us in that residency class got married, and we had him perform our ceremonies.
Soon after, a friend of mine was getting married and asked me to perform the ceremony, so I signed up. Since then, I’ve performed a few weddings for friends and my wife’s sisters, and one for relative strangers! My wife and I were attending her friends’ wedding but the officiant hadn’t shown up – leaving about 200 guests and the bride and groom waiting. So, my wife volunteered me to perform the ceremony. It was a real sitcom moment – I took the notes, a red pen, and five minutes to learn how to perform a Quaker ceremony on the fly.
It’s a handy license to have – you never know when you might be called upon.