The Pew Charitable Trusts

Susan J. Birren spent time in New York and Washington, D.C., though grew up mostly in Kentfield, California, just north of San Francisco, the second youngest of four siblings.  Her father was a lawyer, and then an administrative law judge, for the National Labor Relations Board; her mother studied art and worked as a designer in the garment industry until she had children, after which she became a professional artist.  Her family did much together—camping, sailing, hiking, and general playing—and Birren was an avid reader and enjoyed exploring nature.  Academics came easily and she had a clear interest in science and mathematics throughout her early schooling; a female chemistry teacher in high school, with a master’s degree, proved somewhat influential.

Birren applied to two schools only for college and undertook her undergraduate career at the University of California, Berkeley.  Initially interested in studying mathematics, she decided to switch to biochemistry for her major and had the opportunity to work with Edward E. Penhoet, who later became one of the founders of Chiron Corporation.  She worked on isolating opsins from a halobacterium, a high-salt bacterium, but, more importantly, she fell in love with lab life and lab culture and benefitted from being mentored by Penhoet.  From Berkeley she moved on to the University of California, Los Angeles working with Harvey R. Hirschman on the transcriptional regulation of the metallothionein gene; while there, Kathryn L. Calame also served as a mentor.  Birren decided to remain in California for her postdoctoral work, moving into the lab of David J. Anderson at the California Institute of Technology, studying the differentiation of neural crest cells.  From there she went on to a faculty position at Brandeis University looking at the functional development of neurons.

During the interview Birren was candid about being a working mother and dealing with a chronic medical condition.  At the end of the interview she discusses gender issues in science; administrative duties; the grant-writing process; balancing career and family; the issue of patents; creativity in science; and the role of serendipity in her work.  The interview concludes with thoughts on teaching the history of science; the process of conducting scientific research; setting the national scientific agenda; the role of the scientist in educating the public; and the role of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences on her work.

Anthony Brown was one of two sons of a father in the Royal Navy and a mother of Armenian descent who spoke several languages. The family lived in a number of places primarily on the south coast of England. Brown attended Cranleigh School, where his interest in science evolved past the “inevitable chemistry set.” The British system of education required that he study three related subjects, so he reluctantly gave up history. At the University of Cambridge he found chemistry dull but liked genetics and the history and philosophy of science. He decided to spend his third year in genetics. Two laboratory experiences and a brief foray into the “real world” convinced Brown he wanted to do science, so he entered a PhD program at the University of Edinburgh.

Degree in hand, Brown spent two postdoctoral years in Pierre Chambon’s lab at the Institute for Genetics and Cellular and Molecular Biology in Strasbourg, France, and three years in Harold Varmus’ lab at University of California, San Francisco. At this point he was ready for his own lab and was being recruited by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) in London, England. He sought competing offers and found Cornell University’s superior. Brown says science in the United States has better funding, access to more graduate students, and a smaller teaching load. His work is moving toward developmental biology; he hopes in future to understand differentiation pathways better. He likes a smaller lab, giving him some trainees and workers but not requiring ceding of control. He says the Pew meetings have given him the opportunity to learn about areas he would not otherwise have investigated, with the result that he is now working on developmental biology as well as the molecular biology of cancer. Brown finds the conflict between religion and science, as represented by Genesis and DNA, fascinating; his only religious connection is musical.