Chapter 03: Choosing Cancer Research

Title

Chapter 03: Choosing Cancer Research

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Description

In this segment, Dr. Tomasovic traces the evolution of his interests in graduate school, eventually leading him to focus on cancer research.

Publication Date

8-1-2011

Publisher

The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Professional Path; Overview; Definitions, Explanations, Translations; The Researcher; Personal Background

Disciplines

History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History

Transcript

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Let me offer you a choice right now, because we have a nice moment for subject change. Would you like to continue with a narrative about how you ended up going into the sciences? Or would you like to skip and talk about what inspired your commitment to cancer research once you'd gone through your graduate program?

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

I think maybe it would be helpful to talk a bit about how I got into cancer research. And it was largely chance. So as I said, I wasn't a real strong candidate for graduate school. But my alma mater Oregon State University combined with the recommendations that I'd gotten accepted me into their general science program. That program had at the time -- they had a small reactor there at Oregon State University. They still do I believe. And I thought I was interested I marine science. And they had an ecology program there in the general science area. They had radio-ecology and they had this marine ecology, marine biology programs. And so I started taking those kinds of courses. And I taught undergraduate biology. But I took a number of -- I took radiation biology. I took radio-ecology courses. As it turned out I had a real sensitivity to motion. And so a marine biology career was largely -- unless I wanted to stay on land the whole time, was largely off the table. I got so sick as soon as I got on any boat. So I was working on the master's degree at Oregon State University. Most people took masters' in science at that time, most of the time. Now they're mostly skipped. But I did a thesis on -- I worked for someone in the department there. My adviser was interested in neoplastic diseases in shellfish. So that was my introduction to cancer. These were proliferative diseases in oysters and freshwater mussels. And that's what we were looking at. And so we would --

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

I can't resist asking. Do you order them in restaurants?

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Yes I do. And in fact one of the things. We would go to the estuaries. Estuaries didn't give me a problem. The open ocean did. And we would collect samples in the Oregon rivers or in the estuaries. And at the time when we were collecting from the estuaries we'd collect during the day, process samples. It was here's one for science and here's one for me.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

So raw shellfish even.

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Beer and oysters were part of scientific life. So I did a thesis on neoplastic diseases in mussels. And I applied for graduate schools for a PhD. Because of the radiological health, radio-ecology types of courses that I took -- and at this time my GPA was significantly better. I was paying attention to that, and I did very well. When I got accepted by Colorado State University north of Denver, they had a radiation physics program there. A radiation biology program there that was in the college of veterinary medicine. I got accepted. I got a teaching assistantship which would provide financial support. I had the GI Bill. My wife was working as a research technician in horticulture-related areas.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

We didn't catch her name earlier. You said --

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Barbara Jean Davis was her maiden name. And so Barbara had worked the whole time I was in Vietnam. We'd saved money. She worked as a technician in horticultural research. She lived with my parents to save money. And so by the time I went to graduate school we were relatively well off for graduate students. We bought our first small house when I was in graduate school at Colorado State. So we had more income than most. That was another way the military helped me. We had the GI Bill. And so there I met -- I started taking more radiation biology courses. And I met -- and radiation biologists of course were interested in understanding how radiation affects cells and normal cells, cancerous cells. Were trying to develop ways to kill cancer cells. Either interaction with drugs or radiation alone or radiation in this case plus heat. So I had a well known radiation biologist, Bill Dewey, William Dewey. And he turned out to be my PhD adviser. And I did research on the interaction of radiation with drugs and with hyperthermia or heat.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Can I just ask you? Let's remind me and the listener right now about what year this was.

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Let's see. I went to Oregon State University on the master's degree. Graduated in 1973 with that master's in general science where the emphasis was on radiation biology. And then I went to Colorado State University in '73 and graduated four years later in 1977.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

The connection I wanted to make was you hadn't yet established the interest specifically in cancer. Or it was just the interaction with cells.

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Right. We were looking at cancerous cells. For example we used the famous cell line HELA for Henrietta Lacks. So these were studies directed to trying to learn more about how cancer cells can be killed by radiation.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

So these were the very early days really of studying that in a concentrated way.

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

It was a fairly well established field by then. It wasn't very early days. It was early days for the use of hyperthermia with radiation. But drugs and radiation had been studied pretty extensively for some time.

Chapter 03: Choosing Cancer Research

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