Related story: The immuno man
Almost 40 years ago, fresh from a post-doctoral fellowship at the prestigious Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, Calif., Allison was looking for his first job as a scientist.
A friend in Houston tipped him off to a new MD Anderson program in Smithville, a research center that studies cancer causes. Importantly for Allison, Smithville is just southeast of Austin.
At 16, he enrolled at UT-Austin and ultimately earned a doctorate in biological sciences. Along the way, he soaked up the city’s academic energy and music scene.
In La Jolla, he had played harmonica in a band and once finagled his way into a platinum-record celebration for fellow Texan Willie Nelson. When Nelson asked afterward where he might go pick and play that night, Allison gave him and two other musicians a ride to his regular haunt, The Stingaree.
“A friend of mine was singing ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ when we arrived. He just about gagged.
Willie sang that song later and I got to play harmonica,” he recalls.
That part of his California stay was fun, but “I loved Austin and wanted to get back,” Allison says.
So he packed his car, drove to Smithville and inquired about a job. He became the sixth person hired at the Science Park, an assistant professor in Biochemistry. His initial research involved using components of the immune system — antibodies — to understand liver cancer.
But Allison was intrigued by the immune system itself; dating back to mouse studies he conducted as an undergraduate.
“The complexity and versatility of the immune response fascinated me,” he says.