Patrick Brennwald

Born: May 22, 1963 | Lake Forest, IL, US

Patrick Brennwald grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He remembers taking many good science classes in high school, and doing a special project on the sex determination mechanism of swordtail fish. Brennwald attended Carleton College, where he began in biology, but switched to chemistry. He loved the bench and realized he wanted to be a scientist. Brennwald entered the University of Illinois, working in Jo Ann Wise's lab. Researching Schizosaccharomyces pombe he cloned four small RNA's and had two first-author papers. After a four year postdoc with Peter Novick at Yale University, he accepted an assistant professorship at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, where he works on the gene family Rho. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0454
No. of pages: 95
Minutes: 450

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
22-24 May 2000
Weill Medical College of Cornell University New York, New York

Abstract of Interview

Patrick Brennwald is the youngest of three children, two boys and a girl.  They lived first in Deerfield, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago; when Patrick was about ten, his parents divorced, and a few years later his mother remarried and the family moved to neighboring Northbrook, Illinois.  He remembers a regular childhood, in which he and his siblings played usual games with other children in the area.  He does not remember any particular scientific attraction, except that he and his brother used to help a friend catch snakes in a nearby field.

He attended Roman Catholic schools through junior high school, and then switched to the public high school.  In sixth grade, in his Roman Catholic school, he was taught about evolution, perhaps where his interest in science began.  In eighth grade he had a dynamic general science teacher who helped cement Brennwald’s interest.  As a sophomore he was in honors chemistry and honors biology classes; his biology teacher bred owls and was an inspiration to Brennwald.  In high school he had to come up with a project of his own, so he studied the sex determination mechanism of swordtail fish.  He also worked through high school and college, first as a bagger and then as the supervisor of baggers at his local grocery store.  The supervisory work was good preparation for managing a lab, he says.

Brennwald chose Carleton College, an excellent liberal arts college in Minnesota, because he wanted a small school with a broad education.  He began in biology, but switched to chemistry.  He loved the bench and realized that to be a scientist he had to go to graduate school.  In addition to taking science classes he also studied philosophy; he spent time arranging parties, hiring bluesmen from Chicago; and he played ultimate Frisbee and softball. 

Brennwald entered the University of Illinois for graduate school, working in Jo Ann Wise’s lab.  Researching Schizosaccharomyces pombe he cloned four small RNA’s and had two first-author papers.  He then took on a project that never quite went where he had hoped, and he ended up finishing his thesis in three weeks so as to go off to a postdoc.

Brennwald accepted a postdoc in Peter Novick’s lab at Yale University to research membrane transport.  While at Yale he met the woman who is now his wife, Guendalina Rossi.  At the time she was a student in another lab at Yale, studying another aspect of membrane transport.  After his fourth year, Brennwald accepted an assistant professorship at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City.  In his first year there he won the Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences award.  He has just been promoted to associate professor.  He teaches quite a lot, as he considers it important and he likes it.  He sits on committees; he publishes; he writes grants, of course; he manages his lab; but he would like more time for the bench.  He is continuing his work on gene family Rho.

As is usual with a busy person who loves his work, Brennwald feels that he could use a few more hours in the day, hours to spend with his family; hours to work at the bench; hours just to read and listen to music.  All told, however, he believes he has so far met both his personal and his professional goals.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1985 Carleton College BA
1990 University of Illinois at Chicago PhD

Professional Experience

Yale University School of Medicine

1990 to 1994
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Cell Biology

Weill Medical College of Cornell University

1994 to 2001
Assistant Professor, Department of Cell Biology


Year(s) Award
1990 to 1993

Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Postdoctoral Fellow

1995 to 1999

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

2000 to 2005

Irma T. Hirschl/Monique Weill-Caulier Career Scientist Award

Table of Contents

Early Years

Childhood in northern suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Youngest of three children. Roman Catholic education until high school. Discovers science in junior high school. Inspired by honors biology teacher who bred owls. Bagger supervisor as job and as proxy for lab management. Interest in music, especially Chicago blues.

College Years

Chooses Carleton College, small and excellent. Begins in biology but switches to chemistry. Member of Coop, group that organizes parties. Works in lab his senior year; discovers he loved the bench and does not want to be a doctor. Does chromatography for two summers at G. D. Searle.

Graduate School Years

Enters University of Illinois. Works in Jo Ann Wise's lab on Schizosaccharomyces pombe. Publishes two papers in first two years. Further project does not work as hoped. Finishes thesis in three weeks.

Postgraduate Years

Accepts postdoc in Peter Novick's lab at Yale University. Works on membrane transport. Meets future wife, student in neighboring lab. Finishes in about four and a half years. Marries and begins family. Wife finishes her postdoc, but decides not to look for faculty position.

Faculty Years

Accepts assistant professorship at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Wife takes part-time position in his lab so as to be home with children. Wins Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences award. Teaching. Lab management. Publishing. Writing grants. Administrative duties. Travel. Time at the bench. Patents. Competition and collaboration. Current work. Ethics in science. Goals. Typical day. Balancing family and work life.


About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen