Chapter 08: Department Names Reflect Shifts in an Institution and in Cancer
In this chapter, Dr. Mill's discusses the organization of departments and connects the naming of departments to shifts in cancer medicine. He begins by explaining that Dr. Robert Bast recruited him to MD Anderson by asking the question, Would you like to build the preeminent ovarian cancer center in the world? Permission was secured from the Regents in 1994/1995 to create the Department of Molecular Oncology: Dr. Mills explains why this name was selected then talks about why the name was changed to Molecular Therapeutics after Dr. Mien Chie Hung [oral history interview] was recruited. Next, Dr. Mills explains why so many department names include the word "molecular" and discusses why the molecular focus was tied to a "great convergence" of technological advances and exploration of DNA and RNA. Next he reflects on how departments strive to achieve flexibility in a context where academic institutions have rigid boundaries. He notes that, because MD Anderson does not have undergraduate programs, there are great opportunities for faculty flexibility.
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Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:You said that you wanted to kind of talk about, bring me up to date on the department. I'm interested in all of this from a pretty broad perspective. You came in 1994, as section chief for Molecular Therapeutics, and I'm real interested in kind of the crucible of things that was at work for the transformation of the Department of Systems Biology.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Dr. Robert Bast was being recruited to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, to be the head of the Division of Cancer Medicine. He had attempted to recruit me to Duke University, where he had been several times, and that just simply did not work out for a variety of reasons. When he was pretty sure that he was coming to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, he called me and asked whether I would be interested in coming to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, and having the resources available to build the preeminent ovarian cancer research program in the United States and indeed, across the world. The initial recruitment was to head the section of molecular therapeutics, but with the clear plan that as soon as it was approved by the institution and the regents, to have me head the Department of Molecular Oncology. The term molecular oncology was chosen really, to leave the opportunities for in the directions that that department would go, almost completely open, so that molecular oncology really covers almost all aspects of cancer research that are being done today, and one of the key emphasis was to be on ovarian cancer, but it was not to be restricted to ovarian cancer. So with that title and positions and resources, we recruited a number of individuals into the department and continued to build the Molecular Oncology Department.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Can I ask when was that department formally established?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :That year.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:That year, so 1994.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Just later in that year. It might have been '95 by the time the paperwork was done.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Let me ask you one other question, which may be obvious, but why was Dr. Bast so interested in posing that question to you?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Well, I think that the idea that MD Anderson had the opportunity to become the world leader in his area of interest, by bringing together what he was doing, what I was doing, and adding additional opportunities to recruit and build, and really with the concept that you want to be the best at whatever it is you do, and it is probably far better to be the best at a smaller area than mediocre at everything. So this was part of an idea of saying that focusing in on ovarian cancer and building that program would be an incredible opportunity.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:I was remembering too, how much of our conversation last time was about collaboration and a mentality of collaboration, and I'm wondering if that factored into it as well.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Bob Bast and I actually shared a lab physically when I came, and so clearly, there was a strong collaboration. We had collaborated both conceptually and in publications, and so I think that a very big part of his interest was knowing that I was collaborative and would build a collaborative program. The Department of Molecular Oncology thrived, did well, and then -- and I can get the year for you, I don't have it at my fingertips, -- Mien-Chie Hung [oral history interview] was being recruited to Wisconsin and as part of his retention package, he was offered to be the department chair of a department, and he wanted to designate that department cellular and molecular oncology. That was obviously too close in name to the Department of Molecular Oncology. But with consultation, it became clear that retaining Mien-Chie as an outstanding scientist was sufficient, that we would change the name of the department to Molecular Therapeutics, which we felt would be as flexible and as open. That turned out not to be correct, and so Molecular Therapeutics really, to a degree, was restrictive. It was felt that the department, both perception and internally and externally, and with external advisory board reviews, needed to be focused on therapeutics, and really, the department was much broader in interest than just the implementation of therapeutics. When Garth Powis was recruited to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, to head the Department of Experimental Therapeutics, it became very clear that we needed to revisit the title of the department and the goal of the department, in such a way as to give it a distinct identity and make it clear that we had a role that was different from other departments in the institution.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Can I ask you just a quick question here, because it's like there's proliferation of all of these departments that are doing these things. What is that reflecting, [in] what is going on in science?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :You were actually a sentence ahead of me, so I was going to answer that question. Part of this had to do with the fact that there, at that time, were a large number, and there's now a larger number of departments with the name molecular in their title and indeed, if you look across the departments at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, both the clinical departments and the research departments, in many cases it is extremely difficult to differentiate those departments on goals, missions and vision. This happened really, because of a convergence of both concepts and technology, and development of new technology to where the opportunity to characterize tumors at a breadth and depth in terms of molecular characteristics, DNA mutations, RNA levels, protein changes, became available, and indeed, most major shifts in science are driven by new technology, not by necessarily new concepts. The technology allows those concepts to happen and to occur. For example, the ability to sequence DNA at a relatively inexpensive level, to characterize what's happening at RNA, were technological changes that then allowed a massive change in the way in which we approached cancer. So, those came together to really, a great convergence of approach across departments.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:And that was happening consistently across institutions in the U.S.?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Oh yeah, the whole world. Now there's a difference with MD Anderson as compared to a university. University teachers and with a teaching program, you will have a program or a teaching program in biochemistry, organic chemistry, in physiology, in anatomy; things that you don't have here at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. You have to maintain the ability to teach across those boundaries, and so you have to have people who specifically do pharmacology, physiology, cell biology, because of the educational need for a major university that teaches at the undergrad level. The departments at MD Anderson have sort of two roles. One is to be an academic organizational principal of a reasonable size to deal with, and so that most of the departments have a strong leader, some of them, as in the case of Molecular and Cellular Oncology that I mentioned a few moments ago, were created because of an outstanding person that we wanted to retain and give the opportunity to build, but they're really not driven by a need to teach across different boundaries. So as technologies arose and approaches arose, the actions and the activities and the people in those departments became more and more convergent.
Mills, Gordon B. M.D., Ph.D. and Rosolowski, Tacey A. Ph.D., "Chapter 08: Department Names Reflect Shifts in an Institution and in Cancer" (2016). Interview Chapters. 67.