Chapter 04: Joining the Department of Tumor Biology at MD Anderson


Chapter 04: Joining the Department of Tumor Biology at MD Anderson



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In this segment, Dr. Tomasovic talks about coming to MD Anderson in 1980 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Tumor Biology (now Molecular and Cellular Biology). He explains that this was the period when Dr. Charles LeMaistre [Oral History Interview] and Dr. Frederick Becker [Oral History Interview] were bolstering the basic sciences. He explains how he re-evaluated his career, and shifted toward a focus on administration.



Publication Date



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


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Joining MD Anderson/Coming to Texas; MD Anderson History; Portraits; Joining MD Anderson; MD Anderson Culture; Professional Path

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


Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

And it was during that research period and going to scientific meetings that I began to run across of course lots of other people doing cancer research. I would go to the Radiation Research Society annual meetings. People from MD Anderson were coming to those meetings. And so I completed a degree there. And I took a postdoctoral research fellowship, with Lyle Dethlefsen, who was at the University of Utah Medical Center, and was a radiation biologist working in the department of radiology there. So that was my first hospital-based -- the University of Utah Medical Center. It was in the department of radiology. And I was doing postdoctoral research again trying to do further studies with radiation and cells. And that was really not a particularly successful postdoctoral fellowship. I was there a little over -- let's see. I went there in 1978. Only stayed there a year. And this is how I ended up at MD Anderson. During that time I went to a pathobiology of cancer workshop in Keystone, Colorado. It's a long-running workshop series. And there I met a gentleman who was leading the course, who was a very well known up-and-coming scientist named Garth [Nicholson]. He was well known for publishing about some models with another scientist about models for the cell membrane. He was a tumor biologist. And he and I tried to establish, he being in California at the time at UC-Davis, and I being in Colorado. We tried to establish -- I had some ideas that I suggested to him. We tried to establish a collaborative research relationship, which wasn't getting very far along. Lyle Dethlefsen wasn't very impressed with me in the end. That postdoctoral fellowship ended in failure. He ultimately said well you need to move on. So it wasn't a successful relationship. At that point I was floundering, didn't know where my direction was going to be. And was at risk of not doing much of anything. But about that time MD Anderson had changed its leadership from its founder R. Lee Clark to a new president, Charles LeMaistre. That happened I believe sometime in the range of 1978 or '79. Dr. LeMaistre with Frederick Becker, who was named as his vice president for research, determined they wanted to strengthen the basic research at MD Anderson. And they began around that time, '79, '80, reconfiguring research departments, adding new research departments, and bringing in new department chairs. And Garth Nicholson took the job as chairman of the Department of Tumor Biology, a new Department of Tumor Biology at MD Anderson. And he brought one of his postdocs with him, and for some reason he had taken an interest in me, and asked me to come to MD Anderson to be an assistant professor on a term tenure track. And that was my only option at that point. I had no other opportunities. I wasn't in a particularly successful position to search for a job. So this came out of the blue based on this relationship.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

What do you think he saw in you?

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

I'm not sure. Ultimately he went crazy. Which is part of the latter part of the story. How I took on my first leadership role was related to that. But he was an unusual guy. He was a bit paranoid even at the time. He was very narcissistic. Quite egotistical. And I'm not sure. I wasn't a confrontational kind of a guy. Maybe he felt that I was the kind of person that would fit well with him. Maybe he thought I would follow his direction. Maybe he saw some intellectual capacity in me that attracted him. Maybe he saw other traits. We never had a discussion. I'm not exactly sure why he picked me. Maybe he thought I would be a good fit with most people and would help him bring other people to the department. So I'm not sure exactly what it was. But for some reason he made me one of his first recruits there.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

What were your impressions when you first came to MD Anderson?

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Well, it was a tiny fraction of the size that it is now. I don't remember what the total faculty were at that time, total employees. But faculty were in the hundreds and employees in the few thousand. But it was an exciting place. It was resource-rich relative to -- for its time. And there was a lot of drive and growth. And it was a chance for Barbara and I to rescue my floundering career. So I went about trying to do that, and succeeded in doing that.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

How did that work? Did you establish your own laboratory? Or did you collaborate?

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Primarily established my own laboratory. We were in the Gimbel Building. We had little offices at the back of the lab. I shared my office with a postdoctoral fellow that came to join the department, Peter Steck. And started trying to do research. And I came across some studies on heat-shock proteins. And within a couple of years I had gotten an R01 for that research. And I held that grant until late 1990s, when my administrative role became so extensive that I decided not to renew that grant, because I didn't have the capability to run a research lab and take on heavy administrative responsibilities at the same time. But also because my interest had evolved. I was an adequate but not star researcher for the time. And as I became more involved in the life of the institution I became more and more interested in taking on administrative tasks. And it was a natural shift over time from spending a fair amount of time on research to more time on administrative tasks.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

I wanted to ask you a few more questions about the climate and the culture at MD Anderson that you noticed when you arrived. How did it compare to other institutions that you had experience with? And I'm thinking in terms of research support, the educational mission, those kinds of things.

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Well, it was quite different. It was the first place I was at that wasn't really -- it was the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but really it wasn't a university at the time. It didn't have any independent degree-granting authority. Its faculty participated in graduate education through a graduate school that was organizationally linked to the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. And the students who graduated from the school received their masters' or their PhD degrees from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston regardless of whether their PhD mentor was at MD Anderson or UT-Houston. All of the research was very integrated in the hospital. You walked the corridors and rode the elevators with cancer patients. That's all the institution did. Everywhere else I had been had multiple schools, multiple educational programs, multiple research. This was a very focused place. And you got that sense of focus, that sense of mission very quickly. The people that were coming here were coming here because this was a place where we in the institution were doing the latest research, had the latest -- even then the things that other people didn't have for cancer. Surgeons doing different newer surgeries. Radiation therapy was famous here for the development of the cobalt irradiator. And so this was even then a place of hope for people. And it was a very empathetic atmosphere for patients because even then everyone who worked here could really feel an identity with the mission. So those were the things that you noticed about it. That focus, that identity with the mission, the sense that you were really participating in something that was going to affect people's lives.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Was there a particular circumstance or situation that you remember when you had the aha moment that this work you were doing at the bench really was going to --

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

I don't think I ever really had that with respect to my particular research. Hyperthermia, the use of hyperthermia for cancer therapy in combination with radiation or alone or combination with drugs is a sidebar kind of a thing so far. It's very difficult to deliver, control. It certainly has some minor roles. But it's not been ever moved into the mainstream in a big way. So I felt like I was -- I think in retrospect that the research I did was picking away at the details and never was a leap that was going to impact patient care in a great way. But I think you could see that around you. And being part of the organization, you felt like you had a sense in whatever role you were contributing to that. And I very quickly got involved in helping develop our department. And some of the faculty that I helped recruit have had significant impact. I figured out a way for us to develop a graduate student program in the department that has become one of the best cancer biology graduate programs in the country. It's ranked number one and number two. And so there were things that I was doing, participating in. I took on a leadership role in the animal care and use committee. Things that I was doing I knew were impacting in a way that I wasn't necessarily doing through my own intellectual independent scholarly contributions, but that were contributing to the institution.

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Chapter 04: Joining the Department of Tumor Biology at MD Anderson