Scott Cobourn oral history


Scott Cobourn


Alston Cobourn

East Carolina University


February 23, 2019

SC: My boss left, I probably ought not put that up there because it.

AC: Yeah.

SC: Involves other people.

AC: That's fair. Okay. Hello, I'm Alston Cobourn. Today is February 23, 2019. I will be interviewing Scott Cobourn about his time as a student at East Carolina University. So first, could you please introduce yourself and tell us when and where you were born.

SC: I'm Scott Cobourn, I was born in 1956 in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, which is right near Pittsburg actually. But I never lived there, when my mother worked there was the thing, she worked at the hospital. We actually lived in Ohio, in Salem, Ohio, so that's where I grew up. Small town across the border, stayed there till I graduated college pretty much, that would have been 1978. Then I wasted a year and stayed there through 1979 and then I went to Texas and went to Rice University, got a job in the Bio-Chem department as a technician - research technician too - and stayed there for a couple years. (1:19)

AC: And then after that you.?

SC: Then I left town just for a change and came to North Carolina on my way to Madison, Wisconsin and made the mistake of stopping at my parents' place and I ended up staying there for nine months. Then went rock climbing with my brother everyday and worked a little bit as a substitute teacher just to keep nickels in my pocket. Then I got a job at East Carolina University, they were advertising for the Medical School and I replied to an ad in the newspaper. Had an interview with a couple guys in the Bio-Chem department who said: "No you don't want to work for us, you want to work for this guy over at Microbiology we're gonna set you up an interview." So I came back the next week and interviewed with Dr. M?ller and he hired me on the spot, within minutes actually. Because I knew how to do everything they were doing, they found out real fast, I was interviewing with - he took me over to the lab, his grad student Walker Russell was there. Got talking to both of them, then I mentioned this guy named Bob Wells at the University of Alabama, School of Dentistry. Well, that turns out it where my advisor, Dr. M?ller, got his doctorate was under Bob Wells. And I knew how to do the techniques that came out of Wells' lab, and I mentioned that and they were like: "What? This is the guy we need." So, M?ller left me with Walker and said: "You guys talk." And you know - and then Walker was supposed to tell him what he thought of me. So he left us alone for the rest of the day and we got along famously, got to meet the other guy in the lab, Martin Romantschuk from Finland, and I liked him too - we got along real well so I went home with him that evening and we had some beer and went to the "Ratskeller" and all that. I was hired, started the next day. (3:25)

AC: And so what was your position in like...?

SC: Research Technician II

AC: In microbiology?

SC: Yeah it was the microbiology department, we were still on campus at that point we were still in the biology department. But - and actually we were a separate department but we were kind of in the same space as the bio people and we were waiting on the Brody building to be finished and we didn't have to wait very long, within a couple months I was a moving man. Quite literally. So we moved everything, got a station wagon and loaded up most of it ourselves to be honest, because we didn't trust the movers with a lot of our equipment.

AC: Right. (4:03)

SC: Hauled it all out to Brody, set up everything. It went from one little tiny space to three or four great, big spaces. I mean we got. We were the premier lab in the flagship department at that point, we were the molecular biologists and we were bringing all this new technology into the medical school that didn't exist previous to that. So, we got whatever we wanted in fact, we usually got two of them. We were treated pretty well, that's the best equipped place I've ever been, period. You know, I've been to Duke, Rice, and a lot of other places and I've never seen any place that was as well set up as this was. Marvelous place.

AC: That's interesting. Well, and so what - did you go to school there as well?

SC: At that point you could take classes for free if you worked there.

AC: But you already had your PhD?

SC: No, no, no, no. I had a B.A. (5:10)

AC: Okay, okay.

SC: Graduated from Hiram College, I probably never mentioned that.

AC: Right.

SC: Went to Wilmington College for two years and took general education stuff, like politics and music. Then I left there and went to Hiram, Ohio - Hiram College, where I graduated from - I got serious at that point. Finished up a biology degree.

AC: And then you were just working at Rice, you weren't going to school there?

SC: No, I was just a.. Yeah, I was just a research technician. I sat in on a molecular biology class there and really felt out of place. You know, wasn't following what was going on and I just quit going. So, I went like once or twice and I didn't pay any more attention to that, I just didn't care if it isn't in the lab.

AC: So which years did you work at ECU? (5:56)

SC: Work? I didn't work there very long, I showed up in 1970 - no, that would have been '81 probably, thereabouts. I actually worked there for about a year and a half. During that period I took a class every semester, or even the summer I guess, but I finished up about half the coursework for the doctorate for free. Just as a, you know, I'll just go to class with everybody else and then, I'm trying to think if Walker was a student at that point. I guess he was a master's student, we still had him I think he was getting a master's degree, he was finishing up at that point. Martin was still there, he was a postdoc, so I would just go to class with these guys. And I took, I don't know what I was taking at that point, anyways I decided to stay and applied - set up my advisory committee, I went around talked to everybody first to see if they were going to let me in. I was kinda curious if they were going to let me in because my college grades weren't all that exciting, but they'd seen what I'd been doing the past year and a half and all the new technology I'd brought to the department and said, " of course, we'll take him in a flash." At that point I became a student that would have been the start of summer semester 80. (7:29)

AC: Three-ish, maybe?

SC: Lets see, Eric was born in '84 - I might be off on my years. Shortly after he was born, that's when I quit my job, so I might be a year off on all that. But I started grad school in '85.

AC: Okay, okay.

SC: Officially.

AC: Okay, so you went to do. Yeah, so you were then working on your PhD in Microbiology.

SC: Yeah, I stayed in the same lab, same place, same people. My advisor was the guy I was working for before and I added some people to my graduate committee who I'd known pretty much all along although there was one new guy I added, Dr. Stellwag - whos now in the Biology department last I knew. I added him when he came and Tom Buttke when he came, he came around from the University of Mississippi I think? I'm not sure, but I added him to my committee too. (8:31)

AC: So then your classes, they were mostly over in that same - near the Brody School, that same part of campus?

SC: All our classes were in Brody building, except I had to - my GRE showed that I was a little deficient in mathematics, so they made me take trigonometry and calculus, so I went to campus for that. Everything else was in the Brody Building, some of our classes were just with the medical students too - like medical microbiology, we sat in their lectures. Other than that, we had our own classes, yeah but we'd meet in the conference room or whatever.

AC: So then did you get to see the Brody School grow a lot while you were there?

SC: Oh yeah, sure did, sure did.

AC: Like new buildings?

SC: New people, I mean it was all brand new, everything. When we were there, Brody was the only building - none of those other buildings were out there, the hospital was there and they'd added the Brody off to the side. (9:38)

AC: Was that still Pitt Memorial?

SC: Yes, Pitt Memorial Hospital. But there was nothing else around there, it was just tobacco fields, all those doctor's offices and all that stuff in that part of town, none of it was there. They were just starting to build the houses on Arlington Boulevard for the faculty and now thats turned into, you know, massive subdivision I guess. You know, none of that was there, Greenville was still a small town.

AC: Where were you living during this time?

SC: I lived on Fourth Street with Walker and Martin and his wife, Hilda. We had a couple of other people in there, Jay Stone and a couple others I can't remember their names anymore. They fell away one by one by one, and then I moved in with Yvonne and Walker was kinda left stuck with the house. Martin had gone back to Helsinki, so Walker was stuck with the house so, what did he do?

AC: Where did you move -

SC: Actually he left, he left shortly after that. He finished his master's and went back to - back to Jacksonville, that's the last I ever heard of him. (10:52)

AC: When you moved in with Yvonne, who's your wife now, where did you all live?

SC: Way out in the country, McGowan's Crossroads. McGowan's Crossroads, you can find it on the maps still. Between McGowan's and, what's the other one.

AC: Was that because it was more economical to live out further?

SC: Oh well yeah. Yeah, she - well, I liked the place she had, she had a nice farmhouse and it's in the middle of nowhere. It's fifty bucks a month. Yeah, it was nice. We lived on a huge spread of land out there, it wasn't that far - it was a fifteen minute ride.

AC: Are there other things that you remember about campus during that time - I know you said you spent a lot of time over in the health.

[Crosstalk @ 11:45]

AC: Sciences part. The main part, yeah.

SC: Didn't spend much time on campus honestly. You know, once we left the - whatever the biology building was, I don't even remember the name of it, we really didn't go there much anymore, had almost nothing to do with campus. (11:56)

AC: Were there any, I mean you probably didn't have time, but were there any groups were involved with while you were in school there? Guess it could be -

SC: With other graduate students? No.

AC: I mean any student groups? Or -

[Crosstalk @ 12:13]

AC: Clubs, like biology club?

SC: No, I didn't do anything like that. No, well we had our own thing, we have journal club, you know.

AC: What does that mean?

SC: It's. Every week someone gives a speech on some paper they've pulled out of the literature usually or you could talk about your own stuff.

AC: Journal Club? (12:29)

SC: Uh-huh [Affirmative]. And that was every week and all the students were in that. Sometimes we let medical students come, sometimes we'd invite them. Other than that, no I wasn't involved in any. I took a wellness class for a while, we'd meet after - after work, that while I was still working. We'd meet after work and go running.

AC: Okay.

SC: So I did that for about a year. I think I ran about five miles every day, something like that. [Unintelligible].

AC: Were there places in town that you remember hanging out, spending time, that you went for relaxation?

SC: My first day at work, Paul Fletcher came and got me and his technicians, and John Worthington was there and Carolyn Jones was there and I don't remember - all of the old guys, not the new guys. They took me down to the "Ratskeller," bought me beer, met Bland Simpson, met Lightnin' Wells - or not Lightnin' Wells. Yeah, Lightnin' Wells, and had a good time. That became a regular hangout so. (13:42)

AC: Yeah? And that was a restaurant as well as a bar? Or.?

SC: No, it was just a bar.

AC: Just a bar, okay.

SC: It was a dive bar.

AC: Did they have music there?

SC: Mmhmm [Affirmative] sure did, most weekends, yeah sure did. Yeah you'd get regional acts come through - David Allen Coe I've seen play there.

AC: Oh, yes. (13:57)

SC: Mostly it was local bands, but there'd always be something on - probably two nights on the weekends. And we'd drop in during the week since my buddy Richard lived right down the street so we were kinda regulars. Because he drank during those days, actually I was drinking at that point a little bit, which was kind of new for me - I mean, I went many, many years without drinking at all. In college I didn't drink, but I did for a while there. And then when I moved out of town, though I stopped drinking and really wasn't seeing much in town anymore and kind of fell out of the social scene once I moved out to the country.

AC: Right.

SC: So I didn't hang out as much with the grad students either, tell you the truth. I did during the daytime, but I missed a lot of nighttime activities and cocktail parties.

AC: You were doing a lot of other things. (14:46)

SC: Yeah, well I had a kid too, so you know. I had a one year old so, then there is a lot of studying involved with getting a doctorate so that's what you do at night, you sit there and read textbooks and make notes, endless notes over and over until you drill at this stuff into your head. Biochem's a real pain, you know, if you never took it - you have to memorize all these pathways and where every proton and electron goes and the enzymes and all that stuff, you know, you have to memorize all that. So I spent a lot of time at home at that point, typically I'd go in - i could do most of my lab work, I was pretty good at it, I was real good at multitasking so I'd get most of my lab work done by two or three in the afternoon. I'd have it setup so I didn't have to do anything until the next day or late at night or. So I'd leave, I'd go home and hit the books. So you might find me up there any time, you'd find me there every day from like, nine to two but beyond that it's hard to say. I might be back at midnight, I'd be there every weekend - I'd be there twice or, at least twice every weekend. It was nonstop until I finished. (16:00)

AC: Right.

SC: Five years later.

AC: Yeah, do you remember when you were there any like big events in town or on campus, but people coming or..

[Crosstalk at 16:21]

AC: I don't know, maybe a hurricane? Or.

SC: We had a few, a number of scientific meetings. We had national institutes of science meeting there, it was actually sponsored by the Elisha Mitchell Society, you can look him up. But that was actually the National Academy of Science's meeting so it was a big deal for ECU so a lot of people came from all over for that - I was driving out to the airport, picking people up, bringing them back and give them a speech. I was a chauffeur at that point, that might have been before I started school actually. I don't remember any hurricanes, we had a tornado, there was a tornado that killed a number of my neighbors. Yeah it ran from Ayden to Simpson, I saw it actually. Crossed right in front of our house, I was standing out on the front porch watching it as it's ripping across the field, across the street - you know, quarter mile away. It damn near blew me off the porch. (17:16)

AC: So that was 83, 4, 5?

SC: 83, 83.

AC: Because it was before Eric was born?

SC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Then it went down to Simpson and went up in the air and jumped over the river and disappeared.

AC: Interesting.

SC: But you'd go down to Simpson and see houses with like the whole front of the house is gone and the rest of it's fine. And everything in the house it just sitting there like.

AC: Like a doll house. (17:43)

SC: Sitting on the table like it's supposed to be. But then my buddy John's house was utterly destroyed, completely destroyed. So that was pretty bad. Well I've seen a bunch of smaller tornadoes there too, but that was the big one. Lost the roof on the shed one time. Little F1, watched that one too. Came tearing across the year, went over to my shed and ripped the roof off and kept going. We stumbled on to one out in the swamp one day too, we heard something coming through the trees like a giant elephant stomping through the trees, though "my god what is. What is going on?" Woods just snapping and stuffs flying everywhere and look up and a little F1's ripping the tree tops. And so we started heading for the car and that's when the rain came, we almost didn't get out of there because those roads turn to mud almost instantly.

AC: Yeah, do you remember any flooding?

SC: No, it couldn't flood at our house. (18:43)

AC: I mean just in town with the Tar River.

SC: Not when I was there, not until after I left. The Tar rose pretty badly in one - some hurricane but I was gone by then. But I did see it and knew a lot about it. But I couldn't tell you when that was or which hurricane that was.

AC: Okay, well so then what - so you finished up your degree there and did you stay in the area for a little while?

SC: Nope, left.

AC: You moved?

SC: Left quick. Well I actually - we got evicted from the farmhouse because the owner's daughter needed it. And this was, I don't know, a few months before I graduated, so we moved to whatever that little town was near highway 43.

[SC's Wife]: Grimesland.

AC: Grimesland. (19:39)

SC: Grimesland. Yeah moved to Grimesland and we lived there for a few months maybe less than a year. And then the day I graduated - the day I defended my thesis, we will put it that way. I went home and we moved. Packed the van up and moved to Bear Grass.

AC: Okay, okay.

SC: And that's the end of my ECU experiences really. No we didn't stay in Bear Grass long, she [SC's wife] stayed there - those two stayed there almost a year I guess, but I got a job in RTP pretty quickly so I moved up there. Stayed with her uncle Bill and went to work, I finally found a rental and they came up later so that's how we got here.

AC: Well thank you very much for sharing all that with me. I appreciate it.

SC: You're welcome.

AC: Okay, thank you. (20:40)

Scott Cobourn oral history
In this oral history Scott Cobourn discusses his experiences working in the Molecular Biology Department and earning a PhD in Molecular Biology at East Carolina University. He also discusses the growth of the medical campus. Interviewer: Alston Cobourn.
February 23, 2019
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oral histories
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University Archives
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