Michael B. Eisen

For more information on Michael Eisen, please visit the Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences.

For more information on this oral history, please contact the Director of the Center for Oral History. 

Access This Interview

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.


Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0789
No. of pages: 74
Minutes: 244

Interview Sessions

Hilary Domush
6 February 2009
University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California

Abstract of Interview

Table of Contents

Early Years

Born in Boston, Massachusetts. Parents students at Harvard University. Moves to Bethesda, Maryland. Parents and grandparents have careers in science. Big Boston Red Sox fan. Math team. Computer hacking. Excellent high school.

College Years

Harvard University. Math major, but loves biology; excellent freshman biology teacher, Karel Liem. Father dies. Fish biology class, working in fish lab. Works summer in field station in Colorado. Unable to settle on field in biology.

Graduate School

Harvard biophysics. Class in circadian rhythms. Summer in molecular biology lab; two rotations in crystallography. Don Wiley’s lab. Interest in evolution of flu viruses and surrounding glycol proteins. Publication with Roderick Hubbard in Martin Karplus’s lab. Rotation in tropical ecology. Science too imprecise. Two unsolved phenomena of flu viruses: rapid evolution and relation between sequence evolution and structure. Lab sociable; advisor critical but brilliant. Learns to write and present from Wiley. Stays at Harvard partly because of Red Sox; also because application process boring and predictable. Interest in herpetology but rejected for postdoc on toxins. Meets David Botstein and Patrick Brown; newly-invented DNA microarrays. Summer job as announcer for minor league baseball games; reenergized by job.

Postdoctoral Work

Enters Botstein and Brown’s lab at Stanford University. Joseph DeRisi and microarray-making robot. Yeast genome just sequenced; crystallography helpful for analysis of data. Vishwanath Iyer and Paul Spellman lab mates. Finally finds place in science: role of evolution of gene expression in evolution of organisms and evolution of development. Good lab for him: accentuates his talents. Three years of “unbridled synergy”; world leaders in the field; spread technology to all; free and open. Genomic research and Brown’s attitude about freedom of scientific information motivated Public Library of Science (PLoS); established own publisher.

Joining Faculty

Computational biology hot field. Decision between University of California, San Francisco and University of California, Berkeley. Lab at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL). U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) involved in genome sequencing and radiation. Human Genome Project. Gerald Rubin and Drosophila work at LBL. Moves to campus; easier for grad students, but more departmental responsibilities for Eisen. Teaches computational biology, now genomics module; likes teaching; Berkeley’s teaching reputation good. Lab size and composition. Selection and recruitment of motivated students. Lab management theories and style.

General Thoughts

Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences meetings. Strong feedback about science. Instant peer group. Difficulties of traveling. Howard Hughes Medical Institute. HHMI grant eliminated National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant. NIH reviewing methods. Variability of quality among labs. HHMI’s high standards better than NIH’s. Ultimate goal to understand how expression patterns are encoded in DNA, to understand what the expression pattern will produce; and to understand what’s happening over evolution, leading perhaps to eventual therapeutic interventions.


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.