Chapter 05: The Cancer Biology Program


Chapter 05: The Cancer Biology Program



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Dr. Tomasovic begins this segment with comments on MD Anderson’s perceived weaknesses in basic research. He talks about the important role that graduate students serve in driving research at an institution and how they were integrated into departments at MD Anderson. He then describes his first “forays into leadership”: e.g. during 1986-’88 he created and directed the multi-disciplinary Program in Cancer Biology (first called Interdisciplinary Studies in Cancer Biology) in the Graduate School in Biomedical Sciences.



Publication Date



The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center - Building the Institution; MD Anderson History; On Research and Researchers; On the Nature of Institutions; Building the Institution; The Administrator

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


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


Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

I do want to move on to those specific roles. But I wanted to ask you one final question about your perspective on the institution in those first years, which is you've talked about the positive elements of the culture and how it functioned. But what from your perspective did you think were the weaknesses, the places where the institution really needed to be developed?

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Well, in those early days I don't think I had a good sense of that. I was still an assistant professor. And our clinical research was what MD Anderson was known for. And the patient care that resulted from that. It wasn't known then as a great basic research enterprise. And still to this day, that's certainly improved over these years, but still to this day they're working on that. And one of the underlying reasons for the choice of the president designee, Dr. DePinho, is yet another run at really transforming research at MD Anderson. That level of basic research has never quite matched up with the level of the clinical research. And they're still working on it. That's what Charles LeMaistre was trying to do when he brought in Garth Mendelsohn and Josh Fidler, Margaret Kripke, and a whole host of department chairs that came in in the early '80s, some of whom we still have today. That's what they were trying to do. And we certainly made progress, and probably our quality is better than our reputation. But we still after talking about it for years still don't have National Academy of Sciences researchers here. We still don't have a Nobel laureate here. And some of our competitors in the state have managed to achieve that.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Was that difficulty in the basic sciences behind your motivation to get involved with developing a graduate program in your own department?

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Not directly. The graduate students are the engine that drives research. And they have a very reciprocal relationship with faculty. Really good faculty want to come to organizations that have really good graduate students because they know how important those graduate students are in their conducting their research and in generating that kind of exciting atmosphere. And so if you want stronger faculty you've got to pay attention to the graduate school. And if you want to have a strong graduate school, graduate students want to come to places where there's strong faculty. So it's this cycle. You have to build on both ends of it. And they reciprocally will influence each other. And so our department was a new department.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

When was it established again? It was in 1979 or '80?

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Probably early 1980. Because I came in November of 1980, and I was one of the first faculty here. And I think Dr. Nicholson, Garth, had come in the early 1980s. I'm not absolutely sure. Maybe very late '79, but probably early 1980. And so we were trying to recruit faculty. And we needed to have access to graduate students. So I think I joined the graduate school in 1981. Yes, 1981. Probably -- came in November, the next year I joined the graduate school. And the graduate school was a nondepartmentalized graduate school. You were a member of the graduate faculty. You had to be a member of the graduate faculty in order to have graduate students work with you. You didn't admit graduate students into your own department. They had to be admitted to the graduate school. So the only way you could get graduate students into your department was to be a member of the graduate faculty. The graduate school was structured so that it had some required courses and some optional courses. And I realized that the required courses were mostly courses that students weren't too interested in. So I had the idea to create a cancer biology course. It would be a team-taught course. Mostly by faculty in our department. That would fulfill one of the core requirements for the graduate school. Since the other options weren't very attractive to many students, it immediately became a large course. And it exposed our faculty to graduate students and made it easier for us, because we're giving lectures to them, talking about our research, to get graduate students into our department. And I also created a program in cancer biology that had that core cancer biology course around which we could build other courses. And it's that program that became multidepartmental. And I made Garth the director of it because he was the name. But I had the idea. I created it. I ran it. And that's what started off the Cancer Biology Program. That's what helped build the strength of that department by getting access to graduate students. And as a result I was made the -- what is it he called me? Director for training or something like that. Garth made me. Yeah. So I created that program. At the time it was called Interdisciplinary Studies in Cancer Biology. Now it's called the Cancer Biology Program. I was the associated director for the first two years. Then Garth really wasn't -- really never was the actual leader. And so I led that then for three years. And he made me the training coordinator in the department. And shortly after the chief of the section of tumor biology in that department. So those things happened between '86 and '88 and were my first forays into leadership. Having the idea to create that program, seeing the strategy that we needed to follow there. Creating the program, managing the main course, which at some points had as many as 13 teachers I had to bring in and out of the course. And a large number of students for that time in the graduate school.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

What was the process that you went through to set it up?

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Well, I first had to get the -- there's an academic -- there's a curriculum committee in the graduate school, and there were forms that had to be filled out. And so I had to tell them why this was a good course, that it didn't overlap with other courses. I can't quite remember the sequence. I know I created the course. I think either simultaneously or shortly thereafter I got it approved as fulfilling. They had three or four required areas. One of them was a systems biology area. One of them was a quantitative thing. So people would take statistics or something like that. One of them was a cellular -- they still have these four areas. I can't quite remember what they all are now. But that's the area that I picked. Systems. Because I don't remember what the courses were in that area, but they weren't very interesting to most of the students. So I got approval for it to meet the systems area requirement. First to be approved as a course. Then be meeting the systems area requirement. That drove a lot of traffic to it. And then wanted to create a formal area of study in the graduate school. Started that off as something called interdisciplinary studies. Then I got approval for it to be called a program in the graduate school, and that's where it resides now. So that was the general process. But that's what got me recognized in the graduate school. Because I was running one of the bigger courses, creating this program. Got me recognized for my educational expertise within the department. So Garth made me the training coordinator in the department. It showed me to have some administrative capabilities. And so he created a section of tumor biology and made me chief of that section in the department. So that all occurred over '86 to '88. And began to give me low level administrative roles within the department, within the graduate school, that helped get that experience, that recognition, and started me down those kinds of paths.

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Chapter 05: The Cancer Biology Program