His childhood home was modest, says Mike Snyder. His family lived just outside a town called Pottstown in Pennsylvania dairy land in a farmhouse that was more than 100 years old with sprawling grounds. “Most people are born, raised and die within a 15-mile radius,” he says. Local interests are geared more toward sports than academics.
A high-school chemistry teacher, Mr. Darby (“I don’t know his first name,” says Snyder), also fed Mike Snyder’s interest in the scientific enterprise. Snyder remembers the freedom he was given in Darby’s advanced chemistry class to explore science through independent research projects. Snyder went on to win a Bausch & Lomb science award, which included a free application to the University of Rochester. Although Snyder applied to other schools, the University of Rochester offered him a scholarship. “We didn’t have a lot of money,” says Snyder, “so I went there.”
|Phyllis Snyder with her granddaughter Eve, the youngest of 11 grandchildren.
Snyder picked chemistry as his undergraduate major, but toward the end of college he developed an interest in biology. Although Snyder got accepted for graduate school in chemistry, “I decided to take a year off to learn biology and work in a biology research laboratory,” he says. Soon he was doing his graduate work from 1978 to 1982 with molecular biologist Norman Davidson at the California Institute of Technology and his postdoctoral training for four years with Ron Davis at Stanford University. Davis is now a colleague at Stanford and also trained under Davidson.
Snyder says Davidson and Davis served as mentors on how get science done. Davidson taught Snyder how to think independently and analytically. Davis showed Snyder the power of thinking outside the box. “Whatever I’ve learned from Norman and Ron, it’s been valuable,” notes Snyder.
Davis recalls Snyder being a hard-core carnivore in his younger days. “He used to say, ‘I hate vegetables.’ I was a vegetarian at that time so I said, ‘We complement one another very well!’”
The complementarity extended beyond food. “I admire him a great deal,” says Davis. “We get along well partly because of our similar mindset.” The mindset, Davis says, is a legacy from Davidson, who firmly believed biology would always advance with novel and improved technologies.
Davis says that Snyder’s approach to science hasn’t changed since his postdoctoral days with him. Instead of copying what other researchers were pursuing, Davis says, Snyder always identified the next big question that wasn’t being explored and went after it. “That attitude represents his whole career path,” notes Davis.