Douglas J. Epstein

Born: March 5, 1964 | St. John's, CA

Douglas J. Epstein was born in Newfoundland, Canada. Though he found school uninspiring, he liked his high school science classes and spent his CÉGEP (Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel) year fascinated by tapeworms and the logic of their design. While at Concordia University, and later McGill, he discovered genetics. After spending several summers as an orderly at the Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital, where his mother worked, he decided to pursue a PhD. During his graduate school career Epstein published eight papers, five as first author. Eventually he became an assistant professor of genetics at the University of Pennsylvania, where his research continues to find new ways in which hedgehog is crucial to neurogenesis; he believes that this work will provide a clearer understanding of diseases caused by alteration in gene function and expression.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0418
No. of pages: 52
Minutes: 285

Interview Sessions

David J. Caruso, Hilary Domush and Leah Webb-Halpern
1 and 2 May 2008
University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Abstract of Interview

Douglas J. Epstein was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, where he lived for about five years. At that time his parents divorced, and he and his mother and three older siblings went to live in Montreal, Québec, Canada; his father remained in St. John’s, so the two did not see each other much. Epstein’s best childhood memories are of summers spent at camp, with a week-long canoe trip at one of the nearby national or provincial wildernesses. School he found uninspiring, though he thought his education was relatively good. Because of the Separatist movement 70-80% of his classes in junior high were in French; in  high school only about 40%. He did like his high-school science classes, taking as many as he could. He liked the order and logic of science. He spent his CÉGEP (Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel) year fascinated by tapeworms and the logic of their design.

Because his friends were all going to McGill University, Epstein thought he would go there too. Accepted into the arts division, he decided to matriculate instead at Concordia University, which had a good science program. There he discovered genetics. He believes that the small classes and the access he had to good teachers at Concordia were very beneficial to him, allowing him to transfer to McGill after a year. There he did very well and received an excellent education. He had expected to go to medical school, but spending several summers as an orderly at the Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital, where his mother worked, convinced him otherwise. He had found Michel Vekemans’ lectures about Down syndrome embryos fascinating, and he decided to pursue a PhD.

It was customary then to get a master’s degree, so Epstein joined Vekemans’ lab, where Epstein used his Down syndrome lab work as his master’s thesis. He did not think, though, that he could go further with this research subject, so he decided to investigate the genetic basis of neural tube defects using Daphne Trasler’s mice, hoping to identify the mutation. Since Vekemans was moving to France, Epstein worked in Philippe Gros’ lab, and Trasler became Epstein’s de facto advisor. During his graduate school career Epstein published eight papers, five as first author. He also met his future wife.

By this time the neural development field was booming. Andrew McMahon moved from Roche Institute of Molecular Biology to Harvard University and offered Epstein a postdoc in his (McMahon’s) lab. Epstein then decided to move to Alexandra Joyner’s lab at Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine at New York University School of Medicine to work on sonic hedgehog gene expression in the nervous system.

After this postdoc Epstein accept an assistant professorship of genetics at the University of Pennsylvania, where his research continues to find new ways in which hedgehog is crucial to neurogenesis; he believes that this work will provide a clearer understanding of diseases caused by alteration in gene function and expression. In addition to running his own lab, Epstein continues to publish, to write grants, and to attempt to balance life with his wife and two children with his life at the lab. He has won numerous awards, including the Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences Award.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1986 McGill University BSc
1989 McGill University MSc
1993 McGill University PhD

Professional Experience

Harvard University

1993 to 1995
Postdoctoral Fellow, Developmental Genetics

Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine, New York University School of Medicine

1995 to 1998
Postdoctoral Fellow, Developmental Genetics

University of Pennsylvania Medical School

1998 to 2006
Assistant Professor of Genetics
2006 to 2009
Associate Professor of Genetics

Honors

Year(s) Award
1987 to 1988

Graduate Studentship; McGill Center for the Study of Reproduction

1990 to 1991

Predoctoral Studentship, Fonds de la recherché en sante du Québec (FRSQ)

1991 to 1992

Predoctoral Studentship, Fonds pour la formation de chercheurs et l’aide a la recherché (FCAR)

1992 to 1993

Predoctoral Studentship, David Stewart Memorial Fellowship Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, McGill University

1993 to 1996

Postdoctoral Fellowship, MRC of Canada

1996 to 1998

Centennial Fellowship, MRC of Canada

1998 to 2000

Penn-Hughes Fellow

1999 to 2000

McCabe Research Fellow

2000 to 2002

Basil O’Connor Research Scholar (March of Dimes)

2001 to 2005

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. Parents' divorce. Grew up in Montreal, Québec, Canada. Siblings. Summer camp. Canoe trips in wildernesses. Celebrating Jewish holidays with relatives. School uninspiring until college. Most of classes in French. Liked science in high school, especially in CEGEP year, when he admired logic of design of a tapeworm.

College Years
11

Matriculated at Concordia University. Transferred to McGill University after first year. Loved science, especially genetics. Summers as orderly at Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital discouraged him from becoming doctor. Michel Vekemans' lab.

Graduate School Years
15

Fascinated by Down syndrome, did master's degree on research in Vekemans' lab. Moved to Philippe Gros' lab for PhD. Continued interest in neural tube abnormalities. Used Daphne Trasler's mice. Eight papers, five as first author. Met future wife.

Postgraduate Years
24

Enters Andrew McMahon's lab at Harvard University. Things did not work out well, so he switched to Alexandra Joyner's lab at Skirball Institute for Biomolecular Medicine at New York University School of Medicine. Worked on sonic hedgehog gene expression in nervous system.

Faculty Years
34

Accepts assistant professorship at University of Pennsylvania. Lab set-up and management. Writing grants. Publishing. Continuing research on importance of hedgehog to neurogenesis. Belief that work will provide clearer understanding of diseases caused by alteration in gene function and expression. Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences Award. Birth of two children. Balancing work and family life.

Index
50

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.

David J. Caruso

David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and editor for the Oral History Review. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds an annual training institute that focuses on conducting interviews with scientists and engineers, he consults on various oral history projects, like at the San Diego Technology Archives, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.  His current research interests are the discipline formation of biomedical science in 20th-century America and the organizational structures that have contributed to such formation.

Leah Webb-Halpern

Leah Webb-Halpern graduated from Smith College with a major in history and a minor in Latin American studies. Prior to joining the Chemical Heritage Foundation as an oral history program assistant, she was a research assistant at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Leah has moved on from the CHF and is currently a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.