Stephen Buratowski

Born: November 2, 1962 | Glen Ridge, NJ, US

Stephen Buratowski grew up in Iselin, New Jersey.  He liked to read science stories and mysteries (Jules Verne and Encyclopedia Brown), and knew as a child that he wanted to be a scientist.  A Princeton University recruiter helped him decide to attend Princeton, which he called “paradise.” There he met George Khoury, and asked to study in Khoury’s lab at the National Cancer Institute during the summer.  There he did recombinant DNA for the first time. In Philip Sharp’s lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he worked with Steven Hahn on TFIID. He got a “spectacular” thesis from his work. After some time at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, he accepted an assistant professorship at Harvard University, where he is today.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0581
No. of pages: 0112
Minutes: 450

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
11-13 June 2001
Harvard Medical School Boston, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

Stephen Buratowski, the oldest of four boys, grew up in Iselin, New Jersey. Stephen's father was working as a programmer for a subsidiary of International Business Machines when he met Stephen's mother, who was doing data entry there. His father is an only child, but his mother is one of nine children, and the whole family is still close. In addition, his parents were devout Roman Catholics and brought their boys up in the church. Buratowski and his brothers played a lot of informal sports, went exploring in the "woods", etc. Stephen always liked to read a lot, especially science stories and mysteries (Jules Verne and Encyclopedia Brown), and knew from at least third grade that he wanted to be a scientist. When he visited relatives he loved to play their organ, so his parents bought him one, and he began his musical career. He and friends had a band throughout high school, and in college Buratowski continued with another group of friends. Although he thought his public schools were fairly good, Buratowski did well without having to work much. His parents had not gone to college, and his school's guidance counselors were weak, so Stephen had little help with the idea of college. He followed his friends' lead in trying to score well on Scholastic Aptitude Tests and in applying to colleges. When he met a Princeton University recruiter, Buratowski decided Princeton University was his first choice. He was accepted there, and the financial aid enabled him to enter what he calls paradise. In his junior year he met guest lecturer George Khoury, who read Buratowski's thesis on enhancers. Encouraged, Stephen asked to go into Khoury's lab at the National Cancer Institute during the summer after his graduation. There he did recombinant DNA for the first time. For graduate school Buratowski applied to many schools; everywhere he visited he was told that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was the best, so he decided to go there. Also, Phillip Sharp was there and was doing gene expression, the kind of work in which Buratowski was interested. He spent the first year in classes, and in April he entered Sharp's lab. There he worked with Steven Hahn on TFIID, from which research they published their first paper in Nature and a second in Cell. He got a "spectacular" PhD thesis from his work; this allowed him to skip the usual postdoc and go across the street to the Fellows Program at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. At about this time Buratowski married Robin Marlor, another MIT scientist, who found a postdoc at the Whitehead Institute. At the end of his fellowship he accepted an assistant professorship at Harvard University and continues to progress toward professorship and tenure. Buratowski teaches in the medical school; he serves on many committees, of which his favorite is the research computing department committee; he manages his lab of about ten people; he writes grant proposals; and he attempts to balance his work life with his life with wife and daughter, with whom he has resumed church attendance. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1984 Princeton University AB
1990 Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD

Professional Experience

National Cancer Institute

Summer Internship, Laboratory of Molecular Virology

Harvard Medical School

Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Department of Genetics
1994 to 1997
Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology
1997 to 2001
Associate Professor
2002 to 2016

Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

1990 to 1994

Harvard College

1994 to 2016
Adjunct Professor, Department of Biology, Board of Tutors in Biochemical Sciences


Year(s) Award

Phi Beta Kappa

1984 to 1987

National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship

1990 to 1994

Whitehead Institute Fellowship

1995 to 1999

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

1996 to 1999

American Cancer Society Junior Faculty Research Award


Harvard Medical School Biological and Biomedical Sciences (Ph.D.
program) Teaching Award

1999 to 2004

Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Scholar Award

Table of Contents

Early Years

Grows up in suburban New Jersey. One of four brothers. Large extended family. Parents in computing. Typical "boy" activities with neighborhood children. Early knowledge that he wanted to be scientist. Electric organ and beginning of musical avocation. Religious upbringing. Loved to read; needed glasses at very early age. Public schools not bad. Followed friends' lead when deciding on college.

College Years

Applies to number of schools. Accepted at first choice, Princeton University. Considers college "paradise". Continued to play keyboard and drums in bands. Worked as disc jockey at college radio station. Went into Jacques Fresco's lab in junior year; junior thesis led to meeting George Khoury. Was graduated summa cum laude.

Graduate School Years

Considered California schools for the weather, but decided on Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Worked in Khoury's lab during summer after college. First year devoted to classes, but entered Phillip Sharp's lab in spring to work on gene expression. Working with Steven Hahn, was able to solve TFIID. Wrote "spectacular" PhD thesis. Published his first paper in Nature. Second paper in Cell.

Fellowship Years

Offered fellowship at Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Publishes a few papers. Marries Robin Marlor, fellow graduate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Birth of daughter. Begins to look for job.

Faculty Years

Accepts assistant professorship at Harvard University. Wins several awards, including Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences award. Writing grants. Teaching. Ethnic and gender makeup of his lab. Managing his lab. Awaiting tenure. Committee work. Research computing department committee. Too little bench work. Attempting to balance work with life with wife and daughter. Playing his baby grand piano.


About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen