Franklin D. Costantini

Born: August 1, 1952 | New York , NY, US

Frank Costantini grew up in New York City. He was good in math and liked quantitative, objective subjects. He matriculated at Yale University, working on RNase Q in Sidney Altman's lab. For graduate school Costantini chose California Institute of Technology, entering Eric Davidson's lab to work on sea urchins. He went into Christopher Graham's lab at University of Oxford to focus on molecular biology, especially as applied to mammals. There Costantini worked on deriving embryonic carcinoma cell lines to go into the germ line to make genetically altered mice. At first this did not work, but Costantini showed the possibility of getting into the germ line by injecting DNA directly into the nucleus of an egg, rather than into the cytoplasm. At Columbia Costantini can do whatever he can get funding for. He likes to figure out what can be done with a new and interesting technique rather than try to fit the technique to a specific project. He still works mostly on mammalian development biology and gene regulation. He says that embryonic stem (ES) cells can now enable mutations in all genes, and that his best collaboration is with Elizabeth Robertson and her ES cells work. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0720
No. of pages: 25
Minutes: 105

Interview Sessions

Robert Kohler and Naomi Morrissette
23 August 1989
Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons New York, New York

Abstract of Interview

Frank Costantini grew up in New York City, one of three sons. His father was a chemical engineer, his mother an artist. He was good in math and liked quantitative, objective subjects. He matriculated at Yale University, working on RNase Q in Sidney Altman's lab. For graduate school Costantini chose California Institute of Technology, in part because a girlfriend was going to University of California, Los Angeles. He entered Eric Davidson's lab to work on sea urchins; William Klein, a postdoc, acted as his submentor. The science in Davidson's lab was mostly biochemical and molecular, but Costantini thought it more important to know the "logic behind doing science" than what science the lab did. Costantini still wanted, however, to focus on molecular biology, especially as applied to mammals, so he went into Christopher Graham's lab at University of Oxford. His wife, Elizabeth Lacy, also did a postdoc in Graham's lab. There Costantini worked on deriving embryonic carcinoma cell lines to go into the germ line to make genetically altered mice. At first this did not work, but Costantini showed the possibility of getting into the germ line by injecting DNA directly into the nucleus of an egg, rather than into the cytoplasm. Then a new research field, his result has now become a commonly-used technique. Thinking about another postdoc, this time at Rockefeller University, Costantini was instead persuaded to apply for a job that had come open at Columbia University, and his wife took a job at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Although both are still working on mutations that affect early development, they no longer collaborate. At Columbia Costantini can do whatever he can get funding for. His lab is an exciting place, with much happening. He likes to figure out what can be done with a new and interesting technique rather than try to fit the technique to a specific project. He still works mostly on mammalian development biology and gene regulation. He says that embryonic stem (ES) cells can now enable mutations in all genes, and that his best collaboration is with Elizabeth Robertson and her ES cells work. Costantini concludes his interview by saying that his free time is dominated by his eighteen-month-old son. He also likes to cook and to travel when he can. He still loves the intellectual challenge of science. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1974 Yale University BA Biology
1980 California Institute of Technology PhD Developmental Biology

Professional Experience

University of Oxford

1980 to 1982
NIH Post-Doctorate Fellow, Departmental Biology

Columbia University

1982 to 1990
Assistant Professor of Human Genetics and Development

Honors

Year(s) Award
1980

NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship

1982

Irma T. Hirschl Career Scientist Award

1985

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Grew up in New York City, New York. Family background. Two brothers, both living in Seattle. Father chemical engineer, mother artist. Good in math; liked quantitative, objective subjects. At Cornell University tried psychology courses in summer program for high-school students.

College Years
2

Matriculated at Yale University. Earned money by washing dishes, helping with experiments in Sidney Altman's lab. Read Gunther Stent's Molecular Genetics. Purifying RNase Q. Joseph Gall's course on chromosome structure influential. Deciding between medicine and science.

Graduate School Years
5

Liked atmosphere, climate, informality at California Institute of Technology; girlfriend of time going to University of California, Los Angeles. Entered Eric Davidson's lab to work on sea urchins. Davidson and Roy Britten's work on repetitive DNA important in gene regulation. Davidson's management style: very hands-on, good for grad students. Davidson dogmatic about own views. Wrote Gene Activity in Early Development. Heavily biochemical, molecular. Importance of knowing "logic behind doing science." Davidson's critical approach to others' papers. William Klein as "submentor. "

Postdoc Years
9

Reasons for changing field to mammalian development: easier funding; last chance to try something new; connection to human disease; still not much molecular biology applied to mammals. Went into Christopher Graham's lab at University of Oxford. Wife (Elizabeth Lacy) also got postdoc in Graham's lab. Culture of Oxford lab. Money problems. Deriving embryonic carcinoma cell lines to go into germ line to make genetically-altered mice. Not successful, but transgenic mice working. Injecting DNA into nucleus, not cytoplasm of egg. Francis Ruddle at Yale. Showed possibility of getting germ line; got additional money and a technician. Wife isolated beta-globin from rabbits for his work. Mechanical ability, good hands, patience required. Competition increase in Ruddle, Ralph Brinster, Richard Palmiter, Thomas Wagner, Rudolf Jaenisch labs. Now routine technique, not research field.

Columbia University
16

Accepted offer at Columbia University, wife at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Both still working on mutations that affect early development but different ones; independence important. His own lab exciting place; much happening. Grants. Lab composition. Division of daily duties. Likes bench work. Varies management style to suit student. Philosophy is to ask what to do with new and interesting technique rather than which technique to use for a specific project. Tension between fun and funding. Still does mostly mammalian development biology and gene regulation. No input from Columbia; can do whatever he can fund. Intellectual community of scientists. Best collaboration with Elizabeth Robertson; embryonic stem (ES) cells. ES cells now enabling mutations in all genes. Human Genome Project also important. Likes to cook. Eighteen-month-old son. Loves science as intellectual endeavor, not so much as career, as other duties interfere

Index
25

About the Interviewer

Robert Kohler
Naomi Morrissette