William Braell

Born: September 23, 1953 | Geneva, NY, US

William Braell grew up in Palmyra, New York. He was always interested in science and always had chemistry sets. Braell settled on biochemistry halfway through college at Massachusetts Institute of Technoloogy, where he worked in Philip Robbins' biochemistry lab his senior year. For his PhD, Braell chose to stay at MIT and work on band 3 membrane proteins of red in Harvey Lodish's lab. Braell did his postdoctoral work at Stanford University, in the lab of James Rothman. Braell goes on to detail some of the advances in sciences, particularly in membrane studies. He focuses on the biochemistry involved in the enzymology of membrane fusion. He points out that his work has potential clinical implications:  for the AIDS virus, for example, and for drug-protein interactions. Braell hopes to emulate his ideal scientist, Eugene Kennedy, and be still at the bench many years from now. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0718
No. of pages: 22
Minutes: 70

Interview Sessions

Arnold Thackray and Stephanie Morris
7 March 1989
Ixtapa, Mexico

Abstract of Interview

William Braell grew up in Palmyra, a small town in New York, the oldest of five children. His father was a general practitioner, his mother a housewife. He was always interested in science and always had chemistry sets. His physics and chemistry teacher was a good teacher and helped steer him to Massachusetts Institute of Technology instead of the local colleges his classmates mostly attended. Braell settled on biochemistry halfway through college and worked in Philip Robbins' biochemistry lab his senior year. At the time, not much was known about membranes, so for his PhD, Braell chose to stay at MIT because of its good membrane program. There he worked on spectrin and band 3 membrane proteins of red cells, eventually losing interest in spectrin and concentrating on band 3 in Harvey Lodish's lab. Braell did his postdoctoral work at Stanford University, in the lab of James Rothman, who had an "idea a minute." Arthur Kornberg's management at Stanford produced an electric atmosphere and many famous scientists. Braell goes on to detail some of the advances in sciences, particularly in membrane studies. He talks about the discovery of a signal on proteins; mannose-6-phosphate; Peter Walter and SRP; Randy Schekman and sec; and Stuart Kornfeld and lysosomal enzymes. Braell focuses on the biochemistry involved in the enzymology of membrane fusion. He explains some of the difficulties of the scientist: getting good students; isolating vesicles; competing with molecular biology and cloning. He likes having his small lab, as it is more efficient to supervise and easier to fund. He points out that his work has potential clinical implications: for the AIDS virus, for example, and for drug-protein interactions. He explains that since we don't know which proteins are involved or how they work, fusion could be temporary or contact cell-to-cell; thus understanding membrane fusion is very important. Braell hopes to emulate his ideal scientist, Eugene Kennedy, and be still on the bench many years from now.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1975 Massachusetts Institute of Technology BS Life Sciences
1981 Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD Biochemistry

Professional Experience

Stanford University

1981 to 1984
Postdoctoral, Department of Biochemistry

Harvard Medical School

1984 to 1990
Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Chemistry

Honors

Year(s) Award
1974

Phi Lambda Upsilon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1975

Phi Beta Kappa, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1976

USPHS traineeship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1981

Fellow of the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research

1985 to 1989

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born in Palmyra, New York, oldest of five children. Father general practitioner, mother housewife. Early interest in science. Chemistry sets. Most classmates went to local colleges. Influenced by high-school Latin teacher and physics and chemistry teacher; latter persuaded him to go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

College and Graduate School Years
2

Matriculated at MIT "because they accepted me;" rigorous but not impossible. Decided on biochemistry halfway through college. Chose graduate school and research instead of medical school. Found biochemistry lab for last undergraduate year. Accepted for graduate school at Harvard University and California Institute of Technology, but stayed at MIT because of good membrane program. Not much known about membranes at time. Other membrane scientists: Günter Blobel, David Sabatini, César Milstein. Differences between undergraduate and graduate programs at MIT. Philip Robbins' and Harvey Lodish's contrasting management styles. Worked on spectrin and band 3 membrane proteins of red cells.

Postgraduate Years
9

Stanford University. James Rothman's "idea-a-minute" science. Arthur Kornberg's influence at Stanford: working together; sharing grants; common equipment; interacting people. Students criticizing and supporting each other. Famous names from that period: Welcome Bender; Kevin Struhl; Randy Schekman; Charles Richardson; William Wickner.

Subsequent Years
12

Many changes in science since early 1980s. Discovery of signal on protein. Stuart Kornfeld and lysosomal enzymes. Mannose-6-phosphate. Peter Walter isolated SRP. Schekman and sec. Recalibrating in fast-moving field. Braell's interest in endocytosis. Biochemistry involved in enzymology of membrane fusion. Difficulty getting isolated vesicles. Difficulty getting good students. Popularity of molecular biology and cloning. Robert Collier. Braell's small lab: easier to fund; easier to supervise and still work at bench. Drug-protein interactions: which proteins and how do they work? Implications for AIDS virus and other medical correlations. Possibility of temporary fusion. Cell-to-cell contact infection. Eugene Kennedy Braell's ideal scientist: with Konrad Bloch accounts for most lipid scientists in United States and Canada and still at bench.

Index
21

About the Interviewer

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

Stephanie Morris