Boredom with the suburbs may have been responsible for Mike Wigler's career as a scientist. Before his family moved from the Bronx, he loved to play baseball with friends or capture snakes in the park.
"I was very unhappy leaving the city," Wigler recalled, "because there are a lot of parks in the city and kids play in them. We came out to the suburbs, where theoretically there's more nature, but there were very few parks and kids didn't play outside."
Wigler channeled his boredom into his studies and he began studying chemistry in the fifth grade. "The precipitating event was I wanted to build a rocket ship, and I needed to know about fuel and oxidation/reduction. Basically, I wanted to make explosions."
His plan was thwarted by his father, a high school chemistry teacher, who refused to bring home anything dangerous. Wigler's interest in chemistry shifted to math and physics before college and he went off to Princeton to major in mathematics.
At Princeton, Wigler excelled in his classes and he started enrolling in graduate level classes during his sophomore year. During a leave of absence he spent at his parents' house, Wigler decided to leave mathematics and go to medical school to devote his life to helping people.
"Math has very little social relevance," Wigler explained in Natural Obsessions, a book about the search for cancer genes. "In the long run it's useful to society, but in the short run math is a more autistic activity. I wanted to do something with my life that might be socially useful."
Asked why he didn't finish medical school at Rutgers, Wigler joyously replied "because I flunked out!" But in reality Wigler's mind was wandering again. Instead of planning explosions, he played tournament chess. Eventually he was given another leave of absence.
Perusing the New York Times "help wanted" section, Wigler found an ad for a lab technician at Columbia University with Bernie Weinstein. "I wasn't what he was looking for, but he created a position and hired me part-time. I was there to play, I guess, until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life."
Weinstein was interested in cancer and studied chemical carcinogens that altered DNA. Trained in mathematics, and imbued with the arrogance that those in the profession have toward biologists, Wigler thought the approach was futile. "It was clear to me that if things that caused cancer were mutagens, then cancer was a disease of mutation. To solve cancer - which seemed to me to be an interesting problem to work on - one would have to develop genetic tools."
Wigler began to develop these genetic tools as a graduate student under Richard Axel at Columbia. Wigler looked at how geneticists succeeded in transferring genes from one bacterium to another, and helped develop a system to do the same thing with mammalian cells.
After he moved to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1979, Wigler's lab and others used this system to insert a human cancer gene into normal human cells. The normal cells turned cancerous, and the first human oncogenes were discovered.
Wigler's lab still searches for new human oncogenes and studies the function of the genes in yeast and mammalian cells. When Wigler is not in the lab, he plays the piano - with no rhythm - or tries his hand at bridge.