Michael J. Berry II

Born: December 8, 1967 | Berkeley, CA, US
Photograph of Michael J. Berry II

Michael J. Berry II was influenced by the chemistry careers of both his parents, and during his youth developed twin interests in physics and philosophy. After earning a bachelor's degree, Berry chose to pursue a PhD in physics at Harvard University under Robert M. Westervelt. In a Marine Biological Laboratory course at Woods Hole, Berry focused on electrophysiology and found a community of physicists working in neuroscience and the biological fields. His post-doctoral research with Markus Meister at Harvard University allowed him to transition successfully into the field of neuroscience. Throughout his oral history, Berry addresses such important issues as funding, mentoring his students, and attempting to balance his personal life with his career. 

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

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0392
No. of pages: 82
Minutes: 308

Interview Sessions

Karen A. Frenkel
4 and 5 December 2007
Princeton University Princeton, New Jersey

Abstract of Interview

Michael J. Berry II begins his oral history discussing his childhood, which was heavily influenced by the chemistry careers of both his parents and involved several moves from California to Wisconsin, New Jersey, and then Texas. During high school Berry  developed an interest in both physics and chemistry, while also engaging in some philosophicalq uestions. Shortly after matriculating at the University of California, Berkeley, Berry decided to pursue physics as his major instead of chemistry. The questions at the heart of physics seemed both more intellectually stimulating and intriguing. Although Berry felt he had a calling within the field of physics, he still found time to wrestle with philosophical inquiry. As an undergraduate Berry began to think about neuroscience as the melding of his two interests: physics and philosophy. After earning his bachelors degree, however, Berry pursued a PhD in physics at Harvard University under Robert M. Westervelt. While finishing his thesis work on semiconductor physics and chaotic systems, Berry decided to pursue post-doctoral research that led him farther from physics and closer to biology. Prior to beginning his post-doctoral work, Berry enrolled in a Marine Biological Laboratory course at Woods Hole focused on electrophysiology and found a community of physicists working in neuroscience and the biological fields. As such, the time spent with Markus Meister at Harvard University for post-doctoral research allowed Berry to transition successfully into the field of neuroscience (which he found better suited to his intellectual needs). By focusing his research on visual processing in the retina, Berry discovered the joys and challenges of working in a field that, unlike physics, did not yet have what he considered a well-defined framework. Before securing his faculty position at Princeton University in the Molecular Biology Department, Berry encountered some difficulty in choosing between physics-based and biology-based departments. Shortly after starting at Princeton, Berry was awarded the Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences award. Throughout his oral history, Berry addressed such important issues as funding, mentoring his students, and attempting to balance his personal life with his career. The oral history concludes with a discussion of the connections between neuroscience and philosophy and the globalization of science. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1989 University of California, Berkeley BS Physics
1991 Harvard University AM Physics
1994 Harvard University PhD Physics
1994 Woods Hole Neural Systems and Behavior

Professional Experience

Exxon Mobil Research Center

1987 to 1988
Research Assistant

Harvard University

1989 to 1994
Doctoral Researcher
1994 to 1999
Post Doctoral Researcher, Laboratory of Markus Meister

Princeton University

1999 to 2005
Assistant Professor, Department of Molecular Biology
2005 to 2008
Associate Professor, Department of Molecular Biology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1989

Phi Beta Kappa, UC Berkeley

1989 to 1992

National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow

1996 to 1999

National Eye Institute Postdoctoral Grant

2000 to 2001

Fellow-at-Large, Sante Fe Institute

2000 to 2003

Research Grant from the E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation for the Blind

2000 to 2004

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

2001 to 2003

Old Dominion Faculty Fellow, Princeton University, Humanities Council

Table of Contents

Childhood
1

Parents both chemists. Moved throughout the United States in accordance with father’s career. High school science teachers. Interests in computer programming, philosophy, physics, and chemistry.

College Education
5

University of California, Berkeley. Switching from chemistry to physics. Continuing interest in philosophy. Teaching himself material instead of intellectually interacting with the physics department. Neuroscience.

Graduate Education
10

Harvard University. Interest in wave function collapse. Research on semiconductor physics and chaotic systems. Losing interest in physics. Returns to biology and philosophy interests.

Post-Doctoral Research
13

Harvard University. Transition to neuroscience with Markus Meister. Process of experimental design. Research on circuitry of neurons. Authorship controversy. Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory summer course. Community of physicists who switched to neuroscience. Uniqueness of retina.

Principal Investigator
29

Princeton University. Physics versus biology departments. Difficulty of finding a job within a sub-discipline. Department of molecular biology. Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. Markus Meister. Annual Meetings. Few neuroscientist Scholars. Large laboratory. Specialized space. Publishing. No paper inflation in neuroscience. New technologies for retinal circuits.

Funding, Mentoring, and Teaching
56

Grant writing. Grant subject overlap. NIH and neuroscience. Retina research funding. Time spent writing grants. Mentoring graduate students. Scientific lineages. Lecture series in Israel. Israeli neuroscience. Balancing personal and scientific life. Political interests.

Biomedical Sciences
70

Patents. Neuroscience consulting. Neuroscience computing. Technology advances in neuroscience. Connections between neuroscienceand philosophy. Continuing interest in philosophy. Scientific education and literacy. Globalization and science.

Index
80

About the Interviewer

Karen A. Frenkel

Karen A. Frenkel is a writer, documentary producer, and author specializing in science and technology and their impacts on society. She wrote Robots: Machines in Man’s Image (Harmony 1985) with Isaac Asimov. Her articles have appeared in many magazines and newspapers including The New York TimesCyberTimesBusiness Week, Communications Magazine, DiscoverForbesNew Media, Personal Computing, Scientific American, Scientific American MIND, The Village Voice, and Technology Review. Ms. Frenkel’s award-winning documentary films, Net Learning and Minerva’s Machine: Women and Computing aired on Public Television. She has been an interviewer for Columbia University’s Oral History Research Center’s 9/11 Narrative and Memory project, The National Press Foundation’s Oral History of Women in Journalism, and the International Psychoanalytic Institute for Training and Research’s Oral History. Professional memberships include: The Authors Guild, National Association of Science Writers, Writer’s Guild of America East, and New York Women in Film and Television: Past Member of the Board and Director of Programming. Her website is www.Karenafrenkel.com.