Biochemistry faculty profile – Professor Mike Cox

Photo of Michael Cox
Professor Mike Cox.

Please tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?

I grew up in Delaware, in the suburbs south of Wilmington. I spent twelve years in Catholic schools. The schools were good academically but I shed the Catholic part in college. My childhood was spent wading in creeks, catching frogs and snakes, and planting seeds to see what happened. Only later did I realize how many important things were happening in the world around me. Attended college at the University of Delaware and then did graduate work in the Biochemistry Department at Brandeis University with William P. Jencks.

Where did you carry out your postdoctoral research?

Stanford University Department of Biochemistry with I. Robert Lehman. When I was there, the department had ten faculty, including two Nobel laureates and nine National Academy members. It was a very special time. Biotechnology was being invented in front of my eyes. The annual departmental retreats at Asilomar were amazing and memorable experiences. Everyone should do a postdoc in a place like that. It is about the most fun time you will ever have as a scientist.

As a child, who was your biggest influence?

Not a person but books. I read a lot, mostly about science, biology in particular. I loved the Tom Swift scientist series. As a young adult, my influences were my graduate and postdoctoral mentors. Jencks was a superb mentor. Bob Lehman is now 96 and going strong. He was and still is pretty close to a father to me, a very special human being. I am grateful that we have grown close in recent years. I wish for every student to have experiences like that.

Why did you decide to study science?

I cannot remember a time when I did not want to do that. In grade school, I became obsessed with figuring out how to grow different kinds of trees from seeds. I ended up with quite the tangled mess in my small garden as they all got too big.

When did you come to Madison?

I arrived in Madison, after driving for four days, in a snowstorm in late December, 1982, in a small Toyota Corolla packed to the gills with stuff. I still like Toyotas.

What do you like most about being a professor?

Everything. That is really the problem. Everything is fun and it is hard to say no and easy to become over-committed. I particularly love working with students, and also collaborators from around the world.

What is the focus of your research?

DNA metabolism, particularly DNA repair in bacteria. We are currently focused on two main projects. In the larger one, we are examining the resolution of postreplication gaps and discovering a number of new enzymes in the process. In the other, we are carrying out an extended evolutionary exercise to generate bacteria with extraordinary resistance to ionizing radiation. The last few years have been among the most exciting years I have had scientifically and there is no end in sight.

What do you consider your major accomplishments?

That’s really hard to answer, but here are some. At home, my wife Beth and I raised successful twin sons (now 33) and are proud of both of them as well as our new granddaughter, Lucy Rose. The day Ben and Tom were born is the best day I have ever had. I think my lab’s research accomplishments over almost 4 decades speak for themselves. My lab has produced about 40 PhDs over the years and we have trained a number of postdocs, all of whom have left lasting contributions to the lab. I miss the ones who have left and cherish the ones I still get to work with. We have also had a large undergraduate contingent and all of them have been special in some way. I established or helped establish two new courses or course sequences (Biochem 507/508 with Dave Nelson and Biochem/BMC 701) and have enjoyed teaching both of them. With Dave Nelson, and continuing now with Aaron Hoskins, I have co-authored seven editions of the Lehninger Biochemistry text that has been translated into at least 14 languages. It remains the most widely used Biochemistry text in the world. I also co-authored a Molecular Biology text with Jennifer Doudna and Mike O’Donnell. This one was not as successful as the Lehninger text but Jennifer’s recent Nobel is my favorite Nobel ever. I have established some wonderful collaborations that take me to Europe and Australia on a regular basis (when there is no pandemic). I oversaw the design and construction and/or remodeling of just about every square inch of space in the Biochemistry complex (architecture has been a secret second love). I hope you are all enjoying the results (many grad students are still not aware of the special grad student room in the 1906 wing; search it out!). I guess those are accomplishments. UW has been good to me.

What advice would you provide to a new assistant professor who is just starting his/her career?

Learn to say no nicely. Learn this as early as possible. Learn it better than I did. Do it often.

Beyond that, enjoy the opportunity to work with young people that this job provides. They often have such amazing and inspirational stories to tell. It is a privilege to be part of their lives for a short while. Make this a priority for at least some of your time.

And always remember to keep your science as the highest priority. That is where your reputation and real power will come from.

When you are not working, what do you like to do? What is your favorite place in Madison?

My wife thinks I am always working, but there is still (a little) time for gardening, cooking, wine collecting, traveling, and hanging out with my grown sons when I can (one, with his wife and daughter, is in the UK and not seeing them has been the biggest stress of the pandemic even with regular videos). My wife and I have 18 acres south of Madison and I have spent the last 30+ years turning about half of that into an arboretum including 3+ acres of restored prairie. I garden on a large scale. The prairie has been spectacular this summer and has been instrumental to keeping me sane during the pandemic and a horrific election year. I feel very fortunate to have it. Favorite place in Madison is the countryside west of Madison along the Wisconsin River.

Favorite Quote

Not sure I have one.

Friends Describe Me

You will have to ask them. I can be pretty forgetful sometimes and have a bit (a lot?) of ADD which I am sure some of them find annoying.

Fantasy Dinner Guests

Barack and Michelle Obama, Maud Menten, Alexander Hamilton

Best Advice I Ever Received

Put the take-home message on the first slide in a talk (one of many sage comments from my graduate mentor Bill Jencks).

My Undergrad Alma Mater

University of Delaware. Fighting Blue Hens (don’t ask)

My Worst Subject In School

German. Wish I had taken French or Italian instead (much better food). Now that I travel a lot, I wish I had paid much more attention to languages in general.

If I Weren’t A Professor, I Would

I would be a winemaker.

In College I Drove

Nothing. Much too poor to own a car. I really wanted an MGB.

Favorite Books

“The Devil in Dover” by Lauri Lebo; just read it if you want to understand the tension between science and religion.

Favorite City

I have many favorites. Madison of course, but also Paris, London, Florence, Bologna, Wollongong, Melbourne, Sydney, Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia, Boston, San Francisco, Kyoto, St. Petersburg (Russia). Science has given me close friends in all of these places.

Favorite Movies

“Dances with Wolves”

Favorite Coffee

Sadly, I must drink decaf most of the time, and sadly, the best I have found here is the Sumatra decaf from Starbucks. There are many better alternatives in Australia. Surprise fact: Australia does coffee better than anywhere else in the world; nothing else is even close.

Current Research

Already described above.

My Latest Accomplishment

I received one of the first large RM1 awards from the NIH, including funds for collaborators in Wollongong, Australia and at USC.Cockatoos on the Australian porch balcony

Nobody Knows I…

Love plants of all kinds (although not nearly as proficient in knowing and raising them as Rick Amasino). I also enjoy hanging out with cockatoos in Australia. Very smart and engaging birds. At the apartment we rent in Wollongong, they visit several times a day.