“I think you have a genetic mutation,” my dad said. He was joking. We were driving up from Nashville, Tennessee to Greenville, South Carolina. My whole family and my best friend, Teddy, were on the way to see my mom’s side of the family for Thanksgiving.
I had made some objectively false comment about which cardinal direction we were traveling. I did that often. Spatial awareness is not my strong point, never was. Dad was giving me a hard time about it.
“You couldn’t find your ass with both hands,” Dad said. It was a line I heard often, part of Dad’s arsenal that fits perfectly with his personality—he doesn’t bullshit and he’s hilarious. It was Teddy’s first time hearing the joke firsthand though, and he fell out laughing.
“In fact,” Dad said, encouraged, “I think you have a mutation on the ass-finding gene.”
Now, I think you have a mutation on the ass-finding gene is a hell of a sentence. I love it because it’s this perfect combination of rough country humor mixed with an understanding of genetics. That’s my Dad. He grew up in the South Texas desert. He knows more about cancer-causing proteins than most people know about anything. He is exactly who he is.
The ratio of scientists to cattle in Runge, Texas is, to the best of my knowledge, one to thousands. The one scientist from Runge is my dad.
The ratio of scientists to cattle in Runge, Texas is, to the best of my knowledge, one to thousands. I’ve met some of the cattle—most memorably, the mean, long-horned steers that tried to pin Dad against the barn when he was helping his sister tag the herd’s ears. There were also generations of burnt-sienna-toned heifers named Red.
The one scientist from Runge is my dad. Any wide-angle lens statistical sample would have told you that Dad was going to be a cattle rancher. He grew up dirt poor in a town of under a thousand people. There was one school and one stoplight. The latter has since been deemed unnecessary.
Dad didn’t go to space camp. He didn’t geek out on dinosaurs. As a child, he didn’t spend his spare time playing scientist, perhaps because he didn’t have spare time. Dad has worked since he was twelve years old; his first job was baling hay. He ran track and played football and was in the Future Farmers of America. He ranched.
When he was a senior in high school, he found out that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was offering a scholarship to Texas A&M, eligible to certain FFA members who were raising a steer. Kids still go to college this way. How it works is show judges select certain animals to be auctioned off. Wealthy donors buy the cattle; then the young Texans who raise prize-winning animals use the money from the auction to go to a Texas school. Dad knew about the college money and set his mind to raise a prize-winning steer, and he did. And all of a sudden, he became the first in the long line of DuBois denizens of Southwest Texas, which started with the originals who moved there after deserting Napoleon’s army, to go to college.
College for me was about working hard in class and making painfully clunky and young choices about my personal life—I played Ultimate Frisbee and fell in love with my teammates. I worked at a collective food co-op where we agonized over the potential carcinogens in our organic juice and didn’t think twice about drinking too much boxed wine.
Dad didn’t have the liberty to explore the ridiculous. Dad may have graduated high up in his senior class, but there were only sixteen people. Runge High wasn’t much prepared for anyone to graduate and go to college—so much so that Dad’s adviser set him up to take the wrong standardized test, the ACT instead of the SAT.
He got the entrance requirements sorted out, but then Dad spent a lot of college playing catch-up. By the time he had built the neural pathways to balance equations in chemistry, there wasn’t room to screw around in a cult film culture class, like I did.
But something unguessable happened. Dad discovered that he really had a knack for biochemistry—it fascinated him. The man was for all intents and purposes a hardworking, underfed cowboy, and he sort of instinctively understood relationships between the tiniest biological building blocks.
Sometimes the difference between scraping by and changing the world is bumping into the tools to expose your own natural gift. Literally putting the farm kid in the same room as a microscope.
Now, Dad is one of those people who is wired to survive, so he was always going to make it. Had someone else beat him out raising livestock, Dad would have made a good rancher or small-town businessman for sure. But he might never have known he was an excellent scientist, and he sure as hell wouldn’t have stood on the shoulders of the same giants. Sometimes the difference between scraping by and changing the world is bumping into the tools to expose your own natural gift. Literally putting the farm kid in the same room as a microscope.
There are a couple of Dad stories our family likes to roll out in those spaces of comfort that are created every now and then when the dinner table’s half-cleared and nobody wants to be done convening yet. Many stories have to do with travel, which is a frequent, if late-coming, activity in Dad’s life. He never saw a mountain until the first time he visited my mom’s family in South Carolina.
That’s changed with the onslaught of conferences and speaking arrangements and dinners that come with being an accomplished scientist. Not that any of that has altered Dad too much.
We love to tell about how, once, he got invited to this fancy conference in some five-star hotel. And he was put up in a surprisingly small room, he thought, especially since he was the keynote speaker. He didn’t really care, he was only there for a night, but the fact that he had to pull the bed out of the wall gave the whole thing a seedy roadside inn aftertaste.
Well, he gave his talk, and was packing up to leave when the cleaning lady came in. She gave Dad a weird look.
“Where did you sleep?” she asked Dad showed her the pullout bed.
“Why didn’t you sleep in your room?” she asked.
“This is my room,” Dad said.
She laughed at him, and opened up a door that he had assumed led to the adjacent room. It opened up to a huge suite. Jacuzzi, fruit basket, the works. Dad had been sleeping in the damn foyer.
Another time, on a trip to Japan, Dad was invited to a very formal sake opening ceremony. Mom went with him.
The men invited to participate all wore traditional kimonos. Dad didn’t look as regal as the others because he is a six-three American, and the standard-issue kimono was made for someone about three feet shorter. The kimono-clad men lined up, and were handed small barrels of aged sake that they were supposed to ceremonially open with little mallets.
Apparently, the trick to cracking the sake container is to tap around on the surface of the barrel with the mallet until you hit a sweet spot in the wood, then the barrel opens without much drama. Nobody told Dad this. So all he saw was smaller, older men breaking open their barrels faster than he was. Thus, Dad turned to a tactic that had served him well since his hay-baling days—brute force.
And man did he use it, Mom said. He whaled on that thing, sweet spot be damned, and broke the barrel to pieces, spilling fancy sake everywhere.
It’s easy to laugh when I think about my father, triumphant and sake-soaked in a tiny kimono. But the best part of the story is that it also shows some of my Dad’s most valuable assets: he’s a problem-solver, and he’s determined as hell. It’s part of what makes him an excellent scientist.
After college, Dad went on to get his PhD from the University of Texas, Southwestern in Dallas. And then, almost to the dismay of my already student-debt-laden mom, he decided that he would also become a medical doctor.
And he did go to medical school, at the University of Texas’ Health Science Center in San Antonio. Then my parents moved north so Dad could do his residency at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was intense. The hospital was in a bad neighborhood, and people would literally get shot outside and crawl up the steps. After he graduated, Dad cobbled together his fourteen years of post-graduate school education to make it as a cancer researcher—colon cancer, specifically.
Somehow, that combination of lab work, hard labor, and patient interaction has given him this remarkable sense of things.
Somehow, that combination of lab work, hard labor, and patient interaction has given him this remarkable sense of things. I can’t tell you how many friends and family members have told him about diagnoses that he has mulled over, then said, quietly, “I don’t think that’s right,” triggering a series of events that has often saved lives.
I’m skipping over some beautiful milestones during his career. But now, in the lab, he is working on a rather elegant concept. There is a relationship, early research suggests, between inflammation and cancer. Inflammation is part of our bodies’ autoimmune response—sometimes we attack ourselves in the effort to heal. Cancer is, in its most zen definition, abnormal cell growth. These processes are likely linked. My dad is parsing out the details.
The result of his research will be more research that, like dominoes, will topple one biological puzzle after another in such a pattern that cancer treatment, hence the quality of lives of many suffering people, will get better.
He’s the smartest man and the best scientist that I know, and he’s from a place that most people would categorize as nowhere.
He’s the smartest man and the best scientist that I know, and he’s from a place that most people would categorize as nowhere—no one saw him coming. I’m not even sure he knows the magnitude of what he’s done. Science aside, he built a different universe for me than he'd known growing up. He didn’t have indoor plumbing when he was a kid, and I got to read picture books about DNA and cell division. I played with pipettes in his lab and put dry ice in latex gloves. Through him, I’ve been steeped in science, I have always known to question the clockwork of life. It keeps me laughing, keeps me hopeful about the rest of us to think what one person can make out of half a shot in Hell and a South Texas steer.
Shelley DuBois is a Southerner, the proud daughter of a fine scientist, and a reporter for Fortune.com.
First photo by Rachel Nuwer. Second photo provided by Shelley DuBois.