Kenneth A. Dill

Born: December 11, 1947 | Oklahoma City, OK, US

Ken A. Dill grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, one of two children. His father was an engineer for the telephone company and his mother a housewife. Having displayed an early interest in electronics, Dill attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), obtaining a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's degree in bioengineering. His master's degree experience convinced him he wanted to do research so he applied for and received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and matriculated at the University of California, San Diego. Rotations there gave him an interest in questions about the origins of life. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0788
No. of pages: 103
Minutes: 369

Interview Sessions

Robert Kohler, Naomi Morrissette and Hilary Domush
12 December 1989 and 9-10 February 2009
University of California, San Francisco

Abstract of Interview

Ken A. Dill grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, one of two children. His father was an engineer for the telephone company and his mother a housewife. Having displayed an early interest in electronics, Dill attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in bioengineering. His master’s degree experience convinced him he wanted to do research so he applied for and received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and matriculated at the University of California, San Diego. Rotations there gave him an interest in questions about the origins of life. He settled in Bruno Zimm’s lab because he liked Zimm’s personality and his bio-related physics lab. Dill finished his PhD when he got reproducible results with the DNA separator he had designed and built. He went next to a postdoc at Stanford University, to Paul Flory’s lab to study micelles, hoping that their simpler structures would help him understand the more complex structures of proteins. Dill says that Flory “thought like molecules do.”

Dill accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Florida, where he worked on protein folding, molecular evolution, and the origins of life. Although he liked Florida, Dill left there for the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where there were many more groups doing similar work. At the beginning of Dill’s career Cyrus Levinthal declared that learning how sequence determines structure was the grand challenge in their field; Dill published his paper using polymer statistical mechanics to postulate that requirements for compactness limited proteins’ structures. Others questioned the use of statistical mechanics for thinking about proteins, but Dill developed simple exact models, especially the hydrophobic-polar model. He also developed funnel-shaped energy landscapes.

Dill moved to studying peptoids, or artificial molecules, collaborating with Ronald Zuckermann, to see if they could make the peptoids fold the way proteins do. They called these folding peptoids foldamers and believe that foldamers could have many important biological applications. Dill’s lab now works in three main project areas: computer modeling of structures; water; and nonequilibrium statistical mechanics. Dill’s work was originally funded by Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences but has since been supported by NIH. He still loves to work with pencil and paper.

Wanting to contribute to science policy, Dill cofounded, with Mary Barkley, the Bridging the Sciences Coalition, which is composed of fifteen basic research organizations. Dill discusses Representative John Porter’s help with legislation and procedures; the Coalition’s white papers; Congress’s responsiveness; and the importance of a large vision for science. He believes deep innovation is important for the future of science. He points out some other countries’ approaches to science policy and stresses the importance of public outreach. Dill shares thoughts on science education and grant reviewing. At the time of the second interview Dill had just been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and had yet to attend the inauguration.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1971 Massachusetts Institute of Technology BS Mechanical Engineering
1978 University of California, San Diego PhD Biology

Professional Experience

Stanford University

1978 to 1981
Postdoctoral Fellow, Chemistry under Paul J. Flory

University of Florida

1981 to 1982
Assistant Professor, Chemistry

University of California, San Francisco

1982 to 1985
Assistant Professor, Chemistry
1985 to 1989
Associate Professor, Pharmaceutical Chemsitry
1989 to 2010
Professor, Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Biochemistry/Biophysics, Biopharmaceutics
2010
Distinguished Professor, Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Biochemistry/Biophysics, Biopharmaceutics

University of Utah

1985 to 1989
Associate Adjunct Professor, Pharmaceutics
1989 to 2007
Adjunct Professor, Pharmaceutics

E.O. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

1996 to 2010
Faculty Biochemist

State University of New York at Stony Brook

2011
Louis and Beatrice Endowed Chair of Physical and Quantitative Biology
2011
Director, Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1971 to 1974

National Science Foundation Pre-doctoral Fellowship

1979 to 1980

Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Postdoctoral Fellowship

1985 to 1989

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

1987

Distinguished Teaching Award (UCSF) Academic Senate

1987

Joseph M. Long Foundation Prize for Excellence in Teaching (UCSF)

1991

Elected Fellow, American Physical Society

1997

Elected Fellow, AAAS

1998

Hans Neurath Award, Protein Society

2002

Elected Fellow, Biophysical Society

2004

Elected Fellow, Institute of Physics

2007

Distinguished Service Award, Biophysical Society

2008

Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences

2010

UCSF 53rd Faculty Research Lecturer

2012

Emily Gray Award, Biophysical Society

2012

Appointed Distinguished Professor, SUNY

2013

Elected member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Parents' background; science in the family. Interest in electronics. Junior high school in Westfield, New Jersey. Ham radio. Influential high school teachers. Fixing radios to make money.

College and Graduate School Years
4

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Changing major from math to mechanical engineering. Biomedical engineering new and exciting. Master's degree in pain transmission. Padmakar Lele. Interest in origins of life questions. National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship; University of California, San Diego. Rotations. Bruno Zimm, friend and mentor. Polymer physics. Stanley Miller and Leslie Orgel and origins of life. Creationism.

Postdoctoral Years
10

Postdoc at Stanford University with Paul Flory. Bilayer membrane structures and micelles; implications for protein folding. Boom in the field. Flory's integrity and intellectual capacity. How folding occurs; bearing on molecular evolution.

Beginning in Academia
16

Assistant professorship at University of Florida. George Butler's support. Long-distance relationship with future wife. Move to University of California, San Francisco. Folding and membranes. UCSF more biological than Florida; supportive environment for biophysical chemistry. Space limited; collaboration encouraged. DARPA grant for protein design shared by Dill, Irwin Kuntz, Robert Langridge, Peter Kollman, and Fred Cohen. Dill's lab at Laurel Hill campus. Writing papers in his lab.

Continuing Work
21

Origins of folding problem; Kendrew and x-ray crystallography. Thermodynamics and prediction of structures. Looking for way to measure errors resulting from simple models. Difference from Chou-Fasman rules. Collaboration with John Dorsey on properties of bilayer membranes; NIH grant; Collaboration with Anna Christina Balazs. Collaboration with Miriam Wattenbarger. Lecturing at University of Utah; new teaching ideas.

General Thoughts
33

Reviewing for NSF. Review process overburdened. Science in United States now micromanaged. Balancing work and family. Jogging, swimming, hiking. Electronics with son someday. Upon retirement hopes to study philosophic foundations of statistical mechanics and information theory.

Early Years
30

From Oklahoma to New Jersey. Building rockets with father. Early interest in science. Reason for choosing Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Switching from mathematics to mechanical engineering. Padmakar Lele's electronics setup; staying for master's degree. Alexander Rich's course inspires interest in origins of life. D. G. Wilson and tandem bike design. Undergraduate research in analysis of spectrum of noise.

Graduate School Years
35

Choosing University of California, San Diego. National Science Foundation fellowship. Intellectual difference between Oklahoma and MIT. Rotations. Bruno Zimm. Lab management. Designing and building DNA separator. Ruth Kavenoff and viscoelastometer. Teaching assistant in biology courses. Passing biology tests. Roommates; barter system; fixing cars; social life.

Postdoc Years
44

Zimm's leads to Paul Flory's lab at Stanford University. Origins of life problem too speculative; focused on protein folding. Disputes with creationists. Stanley Miller. Eugenie Scott and National Center for Science Education; movie Expelled. Russell Doolittle, Duane Gish debate. Performance and persuasion. Irreducible complexity and Michael Behe. University's legal difficulties with protesters from various groups.

Academic Career
53

Investigated industry but wanted only academia; University of Florida. Moving to University of California, San Francisco. Lab does little experimentation, some computer work, and lots of analytical theory. Discussion of Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. Missing meeting for birth of son. Protein folding work funded by National Institutes of Health.

Academic career (continuing)
62

Changes in the field. Levinthal Paradox. Statistical mechanics for thinking about proteins. Entropies. Peter Wolynes. Hydrophobic-polar model. Funnel-shaped energy landscapes. Main project areas: computer modeling of structures (bioinformatics); water; nonequilibrium statistical mechanics. Collaborations. Foldamers. Biological applications. University of Utah adjunct. Family and travels.

Science Policy
72

Bridging the Sciences Coalition. Cofounder Mary Barkley. Representative John Porter's help with legislation, procedures. President George W. Bush's increase of NIH funding. White papers. Congress's responsiveness. Importance of large vision for science. Other countries' approaches. Importance of public outreach. COSMOS. Hands-on fun for kids.

Thoughts About Science Education
85

Carl Wieman and physics education. Clickers. Livescribe Pulse pen. Television. Learning as a social experience. Alfred Einstein and theory. Importance of writing, communicating well. Reviewing; scientists and comprehension. "Three-decimal-place" reviewing. Role of taxpayers.

National Academy of Sciences
97

More reviewing as well as more credibility. Peer validation. Family to attend ceremony. Wife's work; children; brother's computational chemistry.

Index
101

More reviewing as well as more credibility. Peer validation. Family to attend ceremony. Wife's work; children; brother's computational chemistry. "

About the Interviewer

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007–2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis.

Robert Kohler
Naomi Morrissette