Helen M. Berman

Born: May 19, 1943 | Chicago, IL, US

Helen M. Berman was influenced to go into crystallography through a laboratory internship with Barbara W. Low, while studying at Barnard University. After receiving her doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, Berman went to work for the Fox Chase Cancer Center, where she researched nucleic acid crystallography and drug nucleic acid interactions. Twenty years later, she moved to Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and expanded her program to include protein crystallography. Berman was convinced that archiving protein structures and studying their sequences would allow researchers to predict future protein structures, instead of relying on theoretical calculations. She worked with Walter C. Hamilton and Edgar Meyer to establish the Protein Databank (PDB) at Brookhaven National Laboratory. At the same time, Crysnet was developed to enable researchers to work on big calculations remotely, from another computer: Berman was the program's prototype user. She currently manages the PDB and applies the most modern technology to keep it running smoothly. 

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0191
No. of pages: 21
Minutes: 89

Interview Sessions

David N. Berol
11 February 2000
New Brunswick, New Jersey

Abstract of Interview

Helen M. Berman begins the interview by discussing her scientific education and how a laboratory internship with Barbara W. Low, while studying at Barnard University, influenced her decision to go into the field of crystallography. After receiving her doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, Berman went to work for the Fox Chase Cancer Center, where she researched nucleic acid crystallography and drug nucleic acid interactions. Twenty years later, she moved to Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and expanded her program to include protein crystallography. Since Berman first entered the field, she was convinced that archiving protein structures and studying their sequences would allow researchers to predict future protein structures, instead of relying on theoretical calculations. In the interview, Berman describes how she shared her views with the leading crystallographer of the period at the 1971 protein crystallography conference at Cold Spring Harbor. Soon after, she began working with Walter C. Hamilton and Edgar Meyer to establish the Protein Databank [PDB] at Brookhaven National Laboratory. At the same time, Crysnet was developed to enable researchers to work on big calculations remotely, from another computer. Berman was the program's prototype user. Next, Berman talks about the problems that the PDB had in getting researchers to submit their structures. A controversy developed because scientists were afraid of losing control of their work—many did not want to share information. To deal with the different opinions on data deposition, guidelines were developed and agreed to by a consensus. Berman also goes into the crystallographic community's dissatisfaction with the PDB in the late 1980s and early 1990s. To improve its efficiency, funding agencies decided to have researchers compete for funding with different grant proposals. Brookhaven hired Berman's old friend and colleague Joel L. Sussman to stabilize the PDB. He ended up, however, competing against Berman twice for funding and control of the database. Sussman won the first competition, but in 1998, Berman became head of the PDB, which moved from Brookhaven to Rutgers. Berman now successfully manages the database and applies the most modern technology to keep it running smoothly. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1964 Barnard College AB Chemistry
1967 University of Pittsburgh PhD Crystallography

Professional Experience

University of Pittsburgh

1967 to 1969
NIH Traineeship in Biochemical Crystallography
1992 to 1997
Adjunct Professor of Crystallography

Fox Chase Cancer Center

1969 to 1973
Researcher
1973 to 1978
Assistant Member
1978 to 1986
Associate Member
1982 to 1989
Director, Research Computer Facilities
1986 to 1989
Senior Member

Brookhaven National Laboratory

1972 to 1974
Research Collaborator, Department of Chemistry

University of Pennsylvania

1985 to 1993
Adjunct Professor of Chemistry

Rutgers University

1989 to 1999
Professor II, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology Member, Waksman Institute
2000
Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1996

Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

2000

Distinguished Service Award, Biophysical Society

2001

Fellow of the Biophysical Society

Table of Contents

Biographical Information
1

Studying crystallography. Fox Chase Cancer Center. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Community involvement.

The Nucleic Acid Database
2

Barry S. Blumberg and relational database technology. Boutique databases. The Protein Databank (PDB).

Creating a Databank
3

Emergence of structures and studying their sequences. Cold Spring Harbor crystallography meeting. Edgar Meyer. Walter C. Hamilton. Crysnet. Thomas F. Koetzle. Refining structures. Graphics displays.

The Protein Database
9

Modern technology. Guidelines for submission. Community dissatisfaction with the PDB. Competition for funding. Joel L. Sussman. Different views on data sharing.

Processing
14

PDB backlog. Processing procedure. Validation. Incorrect structures. Increase in submissions.

Notes
18
Index
19

About the Interviewer

David N. Berol

David Berol received his PhD in history from Princeton University in 2000. The title of his thesis was “Living Materials and the Structural Ideal: The Development of the Protein Crystallography Community in the 20th Century.” Berol is currently an environmental writer for Eastern Research Group.