Marnie E. Halpern

Born: December 25, 1956 | Hamilton, ON, CA

Marnie E. Halpern grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She was always "a bit of a brain," moving ahead in school. Halpern attended McMaster University, but did not enjoy school until her last year, when she became interested in molecular biology and decided to do a master's in James Smiley's lab. Having become fascinated by Drosophila, she invited Gary Struhl to give a talk at McMaster. She pursued her PhD at Yale, where she joined the Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas lab. Halpern gained recognition in the biology department and joined the Haig Keshishian lab to characterize the neuromuscular system in larval Drosophila. Eventually, Halpern accepted a position at Carnegie Institution of Washington. She talks about her experiences at Carnegie, struggles for women in the sciences, research, publishing, and more. 

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

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0536
No. of pages: 179
Minutes: 640

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
4-7 December 2000
The Carnegie Institution of Washington, Baltimore, Maryland

Abstract of Interview

Marnie E. Halpern grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Her family was Jewish and had left Europe shortly before World War II. As she says, the Holocaust was not talked about much in the family, but it was always there. Her father was a doctor; her mother, who had a master's degree in bacteriology, stayed home with the six children until they were in school. The family lived in the house where her father's practice was located, and Halpern often helped him. She was always "a bit of a brain" and did well in school, moving ahead a year or two. Several members of her family had a great influence on her. Halpern attended McMaster University, which was in her hometown, and really did not enjoy school until her last year there. After her first year she decided to take a year to "find herself" and travelled to Europe, India, and the Middle East. She then went to Guatemala. When she returned she restarted a friendship with the man who later became her husband. They spent some time together in Europe, and then he influenced her to go back to school and to work hard. She became interested in biology in her third year, and in her fourth year she worked really hard and did very well. Becoming interested in molecular biology, she decided to do a master's degree in James Smiley's lab, still at McMaster. She had become fascinated by Drosophila, and she invited Gary Struhl to give a talk at McMaster. She attended a conference on Drosophila at Asilomar, where she met a number of big-name scientists and felt star-struck at seeing Barbara McClintock. She decided to pursue her PhD at Yale, where she joined the Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas lab; she describes her relationship with Artvanis-Tsakonas. Halpern gained recognition in the biology department and joined the Haig Keshishian lab to characterize the neuromuscular system in larval Drosophila, discussing her doctoral work involving dye filling and identifying motor neurons. A class at Woods Hole helped her redefine her view of science. She then married and had her first child. She talked about her work on connectivity in the larval neuromuscular system. After meeting Charles Kimmel at a neuroscience conference, her interest in zebrafish expanded. She visited the Kimmels, who spin their own wool and whittle, in Oregon for a postdoc interview and entered Charles's lab. Halpern's work on the no tail mutant led her to the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard lab in Germany. Here she talks about her experiments in the Nüsslein-Volhard lab; living and working in Germany; and her relationship with Nüsslein-Volhard. Next Halpern accepted a position at Carnegie Institution of Washington. Here she discusses how the Carnegie differs from other scientific institutions; Don Brown's recruitment of her; her teaching responsibilities; students she has helped to mentor; ethnic and sexual makeup of students at Johns Hopkins University; sexism in science; the impact of the Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences award on Halpern's science; and the grant-writing process. Halpern goes on to explain her relative financial security at the Carnegie; collegiality at the Carnegie; her concerns over the quality of her science; the process of publishing; her lab makeup and mentoring style; her administrative responsibilities; and her travel commitments. She talks about a typical workday and expresses her continuing interest in benchwork. This leads to the topic of balancing work life with family life in a two-professional family. The inflexibility of the science system for women informs Halpern's explanation for the lack of female PIs. She decries perceived differences in the socialization of men and women and emphasizes the importance of having female role models in science. She returns to a discussion of her current work on molecular asymmetry in the brains of zebrafish, which discussion segues into possible applications of Halpern's research. She tells us the genesis of her current research and gives credit to serendipity in science. Halpern's receptivity to cultivating ties with biotechnology companies demonstrates her view of patents, which she discusses at greater length. She compares the advantages and disadvantages of competition and collaboration in science, giving an instance of plagiarism as illustrative of ethical issues. Determining who the proper overseers of science are is not a simple proposition. She considers knowing the history of science to be important. Halpern does believe in the inevitability of scientific progress. Halpern assesses her professional and personal achievements; evaluates her future plans; and extols the advantages and downplays the disadvantages of being a scientist. In conclusion, she assesses her oral history.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1981 McMaster University BSc Biology
1984 McMaster University MSc Molecular Biology
1990 Yale University PhD Biology

Professional Experience

University of Oregon

1990 to 1994
Postdoctoral Fellow

McMaster University Medical Centre

1981
Research Assistant, Cancer Research Group

Carnegie Institution of Washington

1994
Staff Scientist, Department of Embryology

Johns Hopkins University

1994
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Biology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1990 to 1992

Medical Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship

1995 to 1999

Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences

1998 to 2001

National Institutes of Health Zebrafish Genomics Initiative Grant

1998 to 2001

Society of Developmental Biology Board of Directors (elected Junior Faculty Representative)

1999

Short-Term Fellowship from the Human Frontier Science Program

Table of Contents

Childhood and Family
1

Family background. Early childhood influences. A story that her grandfather told her as a child. Her aunt, Sophie Katz. Parents' upbringings and education. Working in her father's medical office. Siblings. Mother's contributions to science. Early schooling. Her Aunt Mary's home. Experiences at HebrewSchool. An influential teacher. Disenchantment with school in eighth grade. Religion. Science and religion. Interest in gardening. Audrey Brandt. Further childhood interests. Consequences of being the youngest child in her cohort.

High School, College, and a Master's Degree
31

Source of Halpern's aspiration to be a doctor. Experiences in the thirteenth grade. High school teachers. Interest in art. Early jobs. Visits Europe and India. Encounter with a Bengali tiger. Considers becoming a doctor while visiting a poor region in India. Visits Afghanistan. Celebrates the Jewish Passover inCalcutta. Love of communicating with other people. Travels to Guatemala. College. Meets her future husband, Charles Calogero Ippolito. Travels to Europe. Keen interest in biology during her third year of college. Pursues a master's degree at McMaster University.

Master's Research, Pursuing a Doctorate, and Postdoctoral Work
55

Joins the James Smiley lab. Growing interest in molecular biology. Reasons for pursuing a Ph\D in the United States. Invites Gary Struhl to give a talk at McMaster. Barbara McClintock. Attends a conference on Drosophila at Asilomar. Decision to pursue her PhD at Yale. Attends a conference in celebration of the discovery of the structure of Spyros DNA. Joins the Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas lab at Yale. Notoriety in the biology department. Joins the Haig Keshishian lab to characterize the neuromuscular system in larvalDrosophila. Doctoral work involving dye filling and identifying motor neurons. Class at Woods Hole helps her redefine her view of science. Marriage. Birth of her daughter. Postdoc at University of Oregon. Work on connectivity in the larval neuromuscular system. Meets Charles B. Kimmel at a neuroscience conference.

Charles B. Kimmel's Lab and Research with Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard
78

Interest in zebrafish. Visits the Kimmels in Oregon for a postdoc interview. Early experiences on moving to Oregon. Work with Kimmel. Charline Walker. Works with the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard lab in Germany. Work on the no tail mutant. Experiments in the Nüsslein-Volhard lab. Living and working inGermany. Interviews for principal investigator positions. Her interview at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. How the Carnegie differs from other scientific institutions. Don Brown.

Carnige Institute of Washington
97

Teaching responsibilities. Students. Johns Hopkins University. Theory and practice of her teaching. Funding history. Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences award. Grant-writing process. Collegiality between her and her colleagues. The Carnegie. Article-writing process. Publishing in various journals. Makeup of her lab. Administrative responsibilities. Community service. Traveling commitments. Balancing career and family life. Interest inballet. A typical workday. Benchwork. Leisure activities.

Final Thoughts and Reflections on Science
130

Importance of having female role models in science. Current work on molecular asymmetry in the brains of zebrafish. Possible application of her research. Genesis of her current research. Serendipity in science. Patents. Biotechnology companies. Competition and collaboration in science. Ethical issues. Knowingthe history of science. Scientific progress. Future plans. Advantages and disadvantages of being a scientist.

Index
173

About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen