Susan J. Birren

Born: November 24, 1958 | Freeport, NY, US

Susan J. Birren demonstrated a clear interest in science and mathematics throughout her early schooling. Birren’s undergraduate career began at University of California, Berkeley, studying biochemistry under Edward E. Penhoet. She worked on isolating opsins from a halobacterium, a high-salt bacterium, and fell in love with working in the lab. From Berkeley she moved on to UCLA and worked with Harvey R. Hirschman on the transcriptional regulation of the metallothionein gene; Kathryn L. Calame also served as a mentor. She remained in California for her postdoctoral work at CalTech, 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 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.

Access This Interview

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

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0459
No. of pages: 125
Minutes: 449

Interview Sessions

William Van Benschoten
2, 3, and 4 August 2004
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

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.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1980 University of California, Los Angeles AB with distinction Biochemistry
1987 University of California, Los Angeles PhD Biological Chemistry

Professional Experience

California Institute of Technology

1987 to 1993
Postdoctoral Fellow

Marine Biological Laboratory

1997 to 1998
Instructor, Summer Neurobiology Course

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health

2004
Ad-Hoc Reviewer

Brandeis University

1994 to 1999
Assistant Professor, Neurobiology
1999 to 2005
Associate Professor, Neurobiology
2005 to Present
Professor, Neurobiology
2011 to Present
Dean, College of Arts and Sciences

The Volen National Center for Complex Systems

2004 to Present
Member

Honors

Year(s) Award
1982 to 1986

USPHS/NRSA Predoctoral Trainee

1986 to 1987

Associated Western Universities Laboratory Research Award, California Institute of Technology

1987 to 1990

Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Research Fund, post-doctoral Fellowship, Brandeis University

1994

American Heart Association, Massachusetts Affiliate, Beginning-Grant-In-Aid

1996

Whitehall Foundation Research Award

1996

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences Award

2000

Alberta Gotthardt and Henry Strage Award for Aspiring Young Science Faculty

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Family background. Birren’ s parents and her siblings. Family experiences. Religion. Childhood interests and experiences. Early schooling. Attending junior high school and high school. Extracurricular activities. Influential teacher. Parental expectations.

College Years
33

Attends the University of California, Berkeley. Decision to pursue science. First laboratory experience working for Edward E. Penhoet isolating opsins. Penhoet’s mentoring style. Perspectives on Berkeley.

Graduate and Postdoctoral Years
41

Attends graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles in Harvey R. Herschman’s laboratory. Meets and marries her husband. Her postdoctoral fellowship in David J. Anderson’s laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. Herschman’s mentoring style. Her doctoral research in molecular biology on transcriptional regulation of the metallothionein gene. A typical day in graduate school. Mentoring by Kathryn L. Calame. The process of writing journal articles. Anderson’s laboratory management style. Birren’s postdoctoral research in neurobiology on the differentiation of neural crest cells. The birth of her children.

Faculty Years
69

Gender issues in science. Her husband’s career. Accepts a position at Brandeis University. Setting up her laboratory.  Collaborations. Current research in neurobiology on the functional development of neurons. Broader applications of her research. Funding history. The grant-writing process. Balancing family and career. What she likes most about being a Principal Investigator. Multiple sclerosis.  A typical workday. Leisure activities.

Thoughts and Reflections
96

Professional and personal goals. Patents. Teaching the history of science. Tenure. Competition and collaboration in science. The process of conducting scientific research. Setting the national scientific agenda.  Educating the public about science. Gender issues in science. Impact of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award on her work. Her mentoring style.

Index
123

About the Interviewer

William Van Benschoten