The Pulitzer prize-winning author tells John Garth how he came to Oxford to pursue the dream of working with his hero.
Why did you apply to Oxford after majoring in biology at Stanford?
Alain Townsend, who was to become my mentor at Oxford, had made one of the most seminal discoveries in immunology by solving the so-called ‘inside-out problem’, which is that if the immune system exists outside our cells, how can we eliminate those viruses that hide inside our cells? He figured out our immune system scans the cell surface for foreign pieces of viruses. Every biology student reads about his work. The combination of being a Rhodes scholar and working with Alain was just irresistible.
What was your DPhil topic?
I looked at the flipside of Alain’s ‘inside-out’ question. There are some infections you never clear, such as Epstein-Barr Virus, which among other things causes mono [infectious mononucleosis]: it remains your partner for the rest of your life. So the ‘outside-in’ problem is: why can your immune system not eliminate such viruses? Working with Alain, I found that whereas the influenza virus can be chopped up and displayed on the cell surface so the immune system can sniff it out, the EBV proteins are specifically designed not to be displayed. The virus becomes a secret agent that hides inside the cells and doesn’t get eliminated.
How did you find Oxford in 1993 after Stanford?
The differences were stark. Stanford is sunny, dry, very California, very informal; Oxford is cloudy, wet, and quite formal! Stanford was founded in the late 19th century, and Oxford’s ethos at first glance appears to belong to another era. But both schools are places of ideas and have a very committed academic culture.
What were your first impressions?
I lived at Magdalen in a ground-floor room looking onto Longwall Street. It was quite dismal so I spent as much time as I could in the Magdalen gardens. But in my second year I had a beautiful apartment that overlooked Rose Lane and the rose gardens in the Daubeny Building, and that was like being moved from a black hole into the most beautiful place on campus.
What kind of student were you?
Studious. Much of my life revolved around the laboratory at the [Weatherall] Institute of Molecular Medicine. I had close friends including other Rhodes scholars with whom I’m still very much connected.
Did you find time for any other extracurricular activities?
I did a bit of debating and music, but the DPhil was very immersive. I did a lot of reading, very much curricular.
What were the people you worked with like?
I worked directly with Alain, with Vincenzo Cerundolo whom I deeply admire, with Sebastian Springer and Judy Bastin. We taught each other: I was as much their tutor as they were mine. I loved it.
You’re currently an oncologist and you teach medicine at Columbia University. How has Oxford shaped your career?
I studied medicine at Harvard, but I gradually moved away from that because it turns out that EBV, the virus I’d studied at Oxford, causes cancer as well. So I started becoming more interested in cancer, and my current interests lie in cancer biology and stem cells.
Does Oxford have a role to play in the study of these viruses and of cancer?
It does, and it has. The Weatherall Institute has had a deep influence in all of this. There has been a renewal of interest in activating the immune system against cancer cells, and ultimately the lineage of that work goes back to Alain Townsend.
How do you think of Oxford now?
It remains very dear to me. There were hard times for me; in my very first month a group of us were walking down the High Street and a band of right-wing thugs followed us in a car and really beat us up – part of it was to do with colour, I think. But Anthony Smith, the president of Magdalen, was unbelievably kind to me, and we’ve kept up an informal correspondence since then.