Michael “Hawkeye” Pierce ’73
August 13, 2004
Sometimes it is years after graduating from college that our chosen career paths are reaffirmed. That was the way it was for Dr. Michael “Hawkeye” Pierce. Since 1982, Michael has pursued a career in biochemistry and molecular biology. When his father died in 1982 from a cancer known as mesothelioma, that was the turning point in his decision to focus on cancer research. “His was a fast-spreading, metastatic form of cancer, and I realized then how ignorant we were about cancer, especially as it applied to complex carbohydrates on cell surfaces and invasiveness. We’ve come a long way since then,” he says.
Michael, director of the University of Georgia Cancer Center (Athens) is also professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and a member of the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. He also heads a team of seven scientists who have been awarded a five-year, $6.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop cutting-edge techniques to analyze cell surface carbohydrates on cancer and stem cells.
“We now know that some of the enzymes that transfer sugars to proteins show specific changes as cells become cancer cells. When many proteins are made by cancer cells, the sugars attached to them change. By analyzing serum and urine samples for sugar signatures on a particular protein, we now can determine if a woman has a rare form of cancer known as choriocarcinoma. We are now expanding our analysis to other cancers that are more common, such as breast cancer,” says Michael. To commercialize this discovery, we have started a biotechnology company with the University of Georgia called Oncose.”
But science was not Michael’s first love. When he came to OBU, he was headed toward a career in music. He grew up in Midwest City, and his minister of music was Jim Brown, who taught him how to match pitch and sing. Brown later moved to OBU and continued his role as Mike’s mentor on many other levels. His first science professor at OBU was Dr. Bill Neptune, a brilliant lecturer who was also an amateur musician. Bill reaffirmed his belief that science and music, in many ways, go hand-in-hand. Michael says Jim Hurley had the greatest impact on his career path, along with fellow professors John Mills and Dick Canham.
Michael’s first research experience at OBU came as a freshman. “Dr. Mills had an NIH grant, and there were a couple of seniors, John Heinze and Mike Hunkapiller, who worked in his lab and took an interest in me. I started washing dishes in the lab along with David Lester, and that was the beginning. After working there and taking Hurley’s classes, I knew this was what I wanted to do. My mentors at OBU got me into a great graduate school, Johns Hopkins – just as I work hard to get my students into top schools and jobs.
“When I came to OBU, the world opened up for me. I saw talented people doing important work and becoming a part of their students’ lives. I often tell my students that ‘science is the only profession I know of where every day you try and prove what you learned the day before was wrong.’ There are not many folks who can do this day after day and survive. It is tough, but in the end, you can see the success in your students’ lives and in the lives of those that may be impacted by the knowledge that you gain. The Holy Grail for a biomedical researcher is to make a discovery that can benefit someone in need – and that is what we try to do every day.”