Seth A. Darst

Born: March 22, 1960 | Alexandria, VA, US

Seth A. Darst grew up near Seattle, Washington.Though he loved music, the difficulties inherent in a musical career persuaded him to go into chemical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He had never had to study hard before, but he learned fast in college. A required undergraduate class in biochemistry, taught by Larry Gold and Michael Yarus, had introduced him to structural biology. At Stanford for grad school, he worked in Roger Kornberg’s lab on this subject. Near the end of his master’s degree he found electron microscopy and crystallography, his ongoing interests. He remained in Kornberg’s lab until he was offered an assistant professorship at Rockefeller University. Now a tenured professor, he continues his work in prokaryotic transcription.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0456
No. of pages: 92
Minutes: 400

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
30 April, 1 and 3 May 2001
The Rockefeller University New York, New York

Abstract of Interview

Seth A. Darst was born in Virginia, where his father was in the Army, but grew up in the Seattle, Washington area, where his father built houses and his mother taught piano. When President Carter’s economic policies caused massive inflation and unemployment, Boeing Company let go many workers, and house-building was no longer a profitable business. Darst’s father moved the family to Loveland, Colorado, and started another business. Seth and his brother, just a year younger, were “typical” suburban kids, riding bikes, playing baseball, goofing around, sometimes fighting with each other.

Seth’s mother taught him to play the piano at an early age, and he became very good. He finished all the classes in his high school early and spent his senior year working for his father. He could not decide at first between music school and engineering school, but the difficulties inherent in a musical career persuaded him to go into chemical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He had never had to study hard before, but he learned fast in college. By the end of college he had decided that although he did not like the engineering part of chemical engineering, he did not want to go to medical school, so at the last minute he made a few telephone calls and almost accidentally ended up at Stanford University.

A required undergraduate class in biochemistry, taught by Larry Gold and Michael Yarus, had introduced him to the exciting topic of structural biology. At Stanford he worked in Roger Kornberg’s lab, continuing his interest in structural biology. Near the end of his master’s degree he found electron microscopy and crystallography, his ongoing interests. He was given a Lucille P. Markey Postdoctoral Fellowship, so he was able to remain in Kornberg’s lab for an extra two years, just doing what he loved, until he was offered an assistant professorship at Rockefeller University.

Darst’s wife, Elizabeth Campbell, was accepted into the graduate program in microbiology at Rockefeller, so the couple and their new daughter moved to New York. Elizabeth finished her PhD and now works in Seth’s lab. Seth has progressed through associate professorship to full, tenured professorship, Head of Laboratory. He continues his work in prokaryotic transcription, occasionally traveling to Brookhaven or Argonne National Laboratory. He and Elizabeth balance their work with their family life as well as they can.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1982 University of Colorado, Boulder BS
1984 Stanford University MS
1987 Stanford University PhD

Professional Experience

Stanford University

1987 to 1992
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Cell Biology

The Rockefeller University

1992 to 1997
Assistant Professor, Head of Laboratory
1997 to 2016
Associate Professor, Head of Laboratory
2000 to 2012
Professor, Head of Laboratory

Honors

Year(s) Award
1990 to 1996

Lucille P. Markey Award in Biomedical Science

1994 to 1999

Career Scientist of the Irma T. Hirschl Charitable Trust

1995 to 1999

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Family background. Interest in reading. Early years in Seattle area; high school in Loveland, Colorado. Studying piano. His decision to pursue science rather than music.

College Years
15

Learns how to think and study in an honors chemistry class at University of Colorado, Boulder. Majors in chemical engineering, but does not like it. College experiences. A defining moment in a biochemistry course by Larry Gold and Michael Yarus.

Graduate Years
18

Almost accidentally falls into graduate school at Stanford University. The graduate program at Stanford. Works with Roger D. Kornberg. Decides to work in crystallography. Meets his future wife, Elizabeth A. Campbell

Postgraduate Years
29

Takes a postdoc at Rockefeller University. Tenure at Rockefeller University. Setting up his lab. Teaching responsibilities. Ethnic and sexual make-up of his lab; prominence of foreign students and preponderance of men in science. His wife in his lab. His wife and daughter. Writing grants and journal articles. Qualities of a good scientist. Administrative duties. His role in the lab. Balancing family and career.

More Recent Years
50

Darst's current research on prokaryotic transcription. Practical applications of his research. Patents. Collaboration; Competition; ethical question in science. His professional and personal goals.

Index
90

About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen