Chapter 01: An Education Designed to Keep Options Open
Dr. Mills begins this chapter by sketching his blue-collar roots and noting that he was the first person in his family to graduate from college. He talks about his early interest in science, setting it in the context of broader interests. He explains that his aim in college (1975, Bachelors of Medical Science, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada) was to "keep as many options open as possible," which he accomplished by majoring in biochemistry and minoring in political science. He notes how this sensibility of preserving breadth influences his current strategy of recruiting broadly so the department "gains by integrating across areas."
The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
The Interview Subject's Story - Educational Path; Personal Background; The Researcher; The Administrator; Multi-disciplinary Approaches
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:I'd like to start, if we may, kind of in the traditional oral history place, which is I wanted to ask you where you were born and when, and please tell me a little bit about your family.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :I was born in Edmonton, Alberta, 1953.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Can you give me the date?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :August third. My family is a local family that had been in the Edmonton area for five generations on one side and four generations on the other.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Wow.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Which is unusual. Really, I was the first person in my family to ever graduate from college and ilndeed, only one person had ever gone for one year before that, and it was another generation before anyone else graduated from college.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:What was the family professions?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :They were blue collar workers and quite successful in those roles. My father was a plumber and had established a company. He retired at forty-eight because he could, and because it became clear that neither I, nor my sisters and their husbands, were going to take over the company, so he said, I don't need to run it anymore, and he worked when and as and if he wished, without the stress of running a company until he passed away two years ago.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Wow. Can you tell me your parents' names?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Sorry, there's only a smile. My mother's name is Aileen. A-I-L-E-E-N. That is a name that was not what she was born with in that it was inserted in school. Her name was actually Aleen, A-LE-E-N, and nobody was used to that. Then my father's name is Robert and that's also my son's name, and his middle name was Gordon, which is my first name, so there's a history.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:That's nice. So you have siblings.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :I have three sisters. Two of them are still in Edmonton and one is in Cincinnati.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:And your sisters' names just for the record.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Cathy, with a "C," Kelly, and Terri, T-E-R-R-I.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:All right, thank you. So, what was the attitude about education in your family, and how did -- you know, you flowered into a person who was interested in the sciences. How did that all happen?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :It's completely unclear. My family clearly valued an education, but my father had made it through to grade nine and then went into trade school. That was a normal pathway for my family members. So, my interest in going further in school was completely supported but not understood. Indeed, I can note that my father asked me multiple times if I ever was going to get a real job, instead of just being a trainee or a student. So, when you do an undergrad, an MD, a PhD, a fellowship, a postdoc, it adds up, and he just did not completely understand why the process was so prolonged, but both parents were extremely proud and happy to see what I've accomplished.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Tell me about your early education. When did you start to know that you were drawn to certain areas?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Oh, I would say that my initial excitement was reading about Pasteur and others, in terms of bacteriology, and the incredible change that had been made in outcomes in healthcare, with vaccines and better quality of water and simply things that totally have altered the lifespan of people. From that, I went into college in biochemistry, and watching my colleagues, my professors, struggling to get grants and feeling that they were really absolutely incredible and if they were going to struggle, I needed a backup. And so one day I walked over to the medical school and said, "What would it require to get into medical school?" The secretary said, "Well, the dean of admissions is in her office, she doesn't have an appointment," and the rest is history.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Right, right. So, tell me more about the classes you were taking in college. What was the array?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :I would say that the steps that I did in college and indeed, throughout my whole career, has been to keep as many options open as at all possible. So while I was doing an undergrad in the sciences and biochemistry as my specialization, my minor, and actually the majority of my classes, were in political science. And so the idea of breadth and not trying to decide early, where I was going, is something that I kept doing, and even when I did a medical degree, I kept my whole science background moving and did a PhD sort of along the way, again, keeping all possible doors open for as long as possible.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Why did you select political science as a minor?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Because I enjoyed the classes. I took one class as my arts course, I did not like English, and so that became a much more interesting field and area in terms of how political science works, how interactions at both a personal and then a national and international level occur, you know, if I was to say I understood what I do now, is politics.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:I was going to ask you about the connection.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Yeah. I don't think it was conscious at that time. I don't think that most of the things we do that benefited us massively in the future are conscious. I mean, I think that probably, the single most important course I ever took was typing, in college, because that's what we do now for a living, and I would love to say it was because I was prescient and knew the future, but in reality, it's probably because there were three males and twenty-seven females in the class.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Well, I don't think we do make those choices, but those choices do show a certain proclivity of mind or skills, and they often flower in interesting ways.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Well, and I can say that that theme has continued. I would say that when I recruit people to my lab, and this is a little bit out of order, I tell them that our greatest strength and our greatest weakness are identical, that we are very broad, we have no fear, we will do anything that is needed, and our weakness is that we do things broadly and we may not be the best at any one of them. What we and where we gain is by integrating across many different areas, many different disciplines, and really, in the precept of systems biology, integrating that information into new concepts that are not apparent without the approaches.
Mills, Gordon B. M.D., Ph.D. and Rosolowski, Tacey A. Ph.D., "Chapter 01: An Education Designed to Keep Options Open" (2016). Interview Chapters. 60.