Alan Hall
Alan Hall

Cell biologist Alan Hall discusses his first glimmerings of interest in science and his international academic and professional journey.

At Work: Cell Biology Program Chair Alan Hall

The first time I remember thinking much about science was at the age of 13, when we started taking formal chemistry lessons in school. This was at an old fashioned boys' school in Yorkshire, England. I'm not quite sure why, but by the end of the year, I had discovered this great interest in the subject of chemistry. What's more, I found that I was pretty good at it, which also came as something of a surprise to me.

When it came time to choose what to study at university, I enjoyed chemistry enough — the beauty and logic of it — that I decided to make it my focus. My choice was made easier considering that, during those days, my other potential choice, biology, seemed to involve little more than drawing pictures of dead frogs.

At the time, in 1970, the University of Oxford, where I did my undergraduate work, was very specialized. This meant that essentially I studied chemistry for four straight years. However, since I knew that I didn't want to end up working in a pharmaceutical company making fertilizer, I decided to take extra courses in biochemistry.

An Unplanned But Not Unhappy Transatlantic Move

At the end of the four years, I was still interested enough in the subject that I decided to get a PhD. My first truly lucky break came when I chose to do my doctoral work at Oxford with Jeremy Knowles. He was and still is a chemist at heart, but he had a strong interest in biochemistry and in particular enzymology, a subject that, though it is hard to believe now, was at the time quite exciting.

About two months after being accepted into his program, he informed me that he was moving to Harvard. Despite this jolting news, Jeremy was such an outstanding teacher and scientist that I decided to go with him. This, for me, was a very good decision.

My time at Harvard, from 1974 to 1977, had a tremendous impact on my career. This was during the period when molecular biology was beginning to emerge and Cambridge, Massachusetts, happened to be a hotbed for the discipline. I clearly remember the huge furor in the Cambridge City Council, in which some members of the council warned against bringing these strange genetic engineers into their city, where they might contaminate the sewage and drinking water with the strange fruits of their research! For me, it was a wonderful three years, during which I had my eyes opened to so much new science.

Back to the UK … then Switzerland

By the time I had to decide on a postdoctoral fellowship, I knew I wanted to train in molecular biology. And while it was difficult securing a full-time science job in Margaret Thatcher's UK, finding a postdoctoral position was not as difficult. I ended up at the University of Edinburgh, working for Ken Murray.

This was a wonderfully supportive environment, which gave me the opportunity to learn many new techniques and approaches, though unfortunately the projects I was involved with did not work out.

Seeking a change of scenery, I took a second postdoctoral fellowship with Charles Weissmann at the University of Zurich. We were cloning interferon, which, at the time, was a hot topic. The atmosphere was very different from Edinburgh, but in my two years with Charles I learned so much about how to think and work like a molecular biologist.

Escape of a Lifetime

When I finished my second fellowship in 1980, I knew that I had to find a job somewhere. One of my fellow postdocs told me that a man named Robin Weiss, who had just become Director of the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London, was looking for molecular biologists. I wrote to him, expressing my interest, and received nothing in response.

In the meantime, I had been contacted by a biotech company called Searle. Just as I was about to accept their offer, I received a letter from Robin, saying, “I'm still waiting for your answer.” As it turned out, he had responded to my letter, after all. I just hadn't received it. I was offered a job at the Institute, which I promptly accepted — probably for the best, as Searle went out of business shortly thereafter.

I started working at the ICR in 1981 and spent the next 12 years there. The Institute had a long, distinguished history in radiotherapy and drug development but had little experience in molecular biology. This meant that I had the chance to build their molecular biology section, with the intention of applying it to cancer research. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about cancer, but in those days you didn't have to know much to get a job!

This is a wonderful time to be at an institution where so much great science is taking place.

Alan Hall, Cell Biology Program Chair

The other piece of great luck that I experienced at this time was when Robin recruited a cell biologist named Chris Marshall. Together, we worked on the newly discovered subject of oncogenes. Although Chris and I are very different personalities, we clicked, and a close friendship was born that continues to this day.

It was Chris who introduced me to the discipline of cell biology. This was a very formative time for me and for my professional development — I was now using the technologies and techniques I had learned, applying them now to a more direct biological problem. I had become a molecular cell biologist.

Twelve Year Itch x Two

In 1993, after 12 years, I was ready for a change. With this in mind, I moved to a newly created molecular cell biology institute within University College, London. It presented me with an opportunity to work with people outside the cancer field, which I liked. Our work involved the search for pathways that control cell behavior. Doing this type of research brought me into regular contact with more cell biologists. After six years, the Director left and, in 2000, I was fortunate to be appointed as the new Director.

Flash forward to 2004, when I was asked to give a President's Lecture at Sloan Kettering Institute. This allowed me the opportunity to meet a number of the scientists here and to see what a tremendous program both Harold Varmus and Tom Kelly were building.

As a result, I was quite interested and flattered when, some four months later, Dr. Kelly contacted me, asking if I would be interested in the chair position of the Cell Biology Program. Again, I was experiencing a 12-year itch at University College, London, and I realized that this was the perfect opportunity at the perfect time.

One of the big attractions of the job for me was the opportunity to live in New York City. My wife, who had been teaching for quite some time, liked the idea of a life style change, and our children had already left home. The administrative support we received from SKI made the transition an easy one, and the clincher was that my commute to work would go from one hour and five minutes to under five minutes!

My two main responsibilities as chair are to run my own laboratory and to recruit new faculty into the Cell Biology Program, both of which I enjoy doing. With the advent of the new Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School and the numerous investments in new faculty and resources that have been made at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, this is a wonderful time to be at an institution where so much great science is taking place. I feel fortunate to be involved in such an exciting endeavor.