Published: Aug. 1, 2016 By
John Milligan – photo courtesy of Gilead Sciences

John Milligan spent two years at the University of Colorado Boulder during his graduate studies in the mid-1980’s. He helped to move his mentor, Dr. Olke Uhlenbeck, in a U-Haul truck across the Great Plains to the Rockies. Uhlenbeck was recruited from the University of Illinois in 1986 to head CU Boulder’s biochemistry division, which included many of CU’s research stars.

Five years before, in 1980, Professor Marvin Caruthers and seven other research scientists founded Amgen, a biotechnology company that now has approximately 18,000 employees worldwide. Four years later CU’s Tom Cech would win the 1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Milligan is now the president and chief operating officer of Foster City, California-based Gilead Sciences, Inc., a biopharmaceutical company focused on advancing the care of patients suffering from life-threatening diseases worldwide. Milligan spent two years of his PhD studies at CU Boulder in Uhlenbeck’s lab after it moved from the University of Illinois, and then later started at the then-developing Gilead Sciences as employee #32.

“Because I came to CU in the middle of my graduate work, I enjoyed the best of both Colorado and Illinois,” says Milligan, who eventually returned to the University of Illinois to finish his PhD. “In Colorado I loved that we were aligned with biologists and that there was a close community of people working on RNA.”

To honor the mentorship Milligan received from Uhlenbeck, he recently donated $1 million to establish the Olke C. Uhlenbeck Endowed Graduate Fund for students participating in the BioFrontiers Interdisciplinary Quantitative Biology, or IQ Biology, PhD program. Milligan liked that the program focuses on exposing graduate students to other aspects of working in biological sciences, from writing computer code and learning applied math to professional development: all skills important to any career, whether in industry or academia.

“I really value the time I spent at CU Boulder with Olke,” says Milligan. “I appreciate the conversations we had as I developed into a scientist. He also taught me to be leader by showing me what it meant to be engaged in research and intellectually curious.”

The BioFrontiers Institute’s Director, Tom Cech, now a distinguished professor in chemistry and biochemistry at CU Boulder, will participate in choosing the first Uhlenbeck Fellow from the incoming class of IQ Biology students this fall.

“I love that John is supporting graduate education. It’s the right thing to do at the right time,” says Uhlenbeck, adding, “I feel a little strange to have something named after me…but I’ll get over it.”

Milligan and Uhlenbeck arrived at CU Boulder during a period of rapid growth in its reputation as a ribonucleic acid (RNA) research powerhouse. Uhlenbeck agreed to come to Boulder, with the condition that CU’s various RNA research groups meet together regularly to share information and collaborate on projects.

These “RNA Clubs” eventually grew to more than 100 faculty, students and industry scientists sharing what they were discovering about RNA. The interactive meetings helped CU Boulder to grow in its RNA research dominance, which supported the launch of many Boulder biotechnology startups, including Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals Inc. and NeXstar Pharmaceuticals, Inc. The RNA Club is still active at CU, more than 30 years later.

Despite the often-bleak news graduate students face about the loss of federal funding and academic jobs, Uhlenbeck has a positive outlook about the opportunities graduate students now have. Over his academic career he mentored more than 40 graduate students, including Milligan.

He feels that students now have more choices for career paths and are not limited to life in academia. About a third of Uhlenbeck’s former students now hold academic jobs, but the rest have varied careers ranging from a patent attorney to running a lab for testing biological samples from hospitals.

“My best advice to graduate students right now would be to keep an open mind,” says Uhlenbeck. “I think students are sometimes discouraged when they believe they have to become professors. The world is so much bigger now and they may find they are better suited for research in industry, medicine or law. You need to be intellectually agile to be able to know how to search for something when you don’t know everything.”