Nathaniel Heintz

Born: December 10, 1951 | Utica, NY, US

Nathaniel Heintz developed an early interest in science due to his intellectually stimulating home environment. Heintz chose Williams College in order to play hockey and worked hard only in his science classes, especially genetics and biochemistry. He did his honors thesis in electron microscopy with George Vankin. Heintz entered State University of New York at Albany to study molecular biology under David Shub. At Washington University in St. Louis, Heintz combined genetics with gene expression in Robert Roeder’s lab, concentrating on cell-cycle regulation to learn about basic growth control in cells. He accepted a job at Rockefeller University and returned to work in neurobiology. His resumption of neurobiology also gives his lab members infinite amounts of material to take to their own labs. Heintz values the personal aspects of science and likes to be colleagues with his former lab members. He says a good scientist needs to have a strong work ethic, critical design capability, imagination in experimentation, and intellectual aggressiveness. Heintz decries “flash” science, which often leads to premature conclusions and publications that later have to be retracted.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0726
No. of pages: 32
Minutes: 140

Interview Sessions

Robert Kohler and Naomi Morrissette
29 August 1989
The Rockefeller University, New York, New York

Abstract of Interview

Nathaniel Heintz grew up on a dairy farm near Clinton, New York. He is the tenth of twelve children whose father was an oral surgeon and whose mother was a housewife and career counselor. One of his older brothers is also a scientist, and the two collaborate a bit. Always interested in science, Heintz says that his high school was less intellectually stimulating than his home environment. Heintz chose Williams College in order to play hockey; he says he worked hard only in his science classes, especially genetics and biochemistry. He did his honors thesis in electron microscopy with George Vankin.

After breaking a contract to play professional hockey in Europe, Heintz entered State University of New York at Albany to study molecular biology, an exciting new field. His experience with his advisor, David Shub, taught him to be self-reliant and gave him a good foundation for a postdoc. Rapidly developing equipment and techniques made him want to move from prokaryote systems to eukaryote.

At Washington University in St. Louis, Heintz combined genetics with gene expression in Robert Roeder’s lab, which he found stimulating, exciting, and competitive. He found Roeder intelligent, driven, and accomplished. Wanting to express mammalian histone, Heintz concentrated on cell-cycle regulation to learn about basic growth control in cells. He remains interested not so much in the mechanistic what happens, but rather in the biological why and how.

When he accepted a job at Rockefeller University Heintz acquired a much larger lab space and more people and so could more easily return to neurobiology, which he has always fascinated him. He says that cell populations are not homogeneous; they have internal genetic programs, but they are also influenced by their environment and by interactions with other cells. By working in the cerebellum, Heintz hopes to find how a particular cell in complex tissue knows what genes to express and when. The cerebellum has only five different cell types, each type organized and developed in a particular way. Since the cerebellum, which is dormant until birth, controls movement, experiments are not lethal. His resumption of neurobiology also gives his lab members infinite amounts of material to take to their own labs. Heintz values the personal aspects of science and likes to be colleagues with his former lab members.

Heintz describes the changes in Rockefeller’s organization and his own lab composition and management. He says a good scientist needs to have a strong work ethic, critical design capability, imagination in experimentation, and intellectual aggressiveness. He believes experiments are crucial and that few scientists are exceptional experimentalists. He talks about his own funding and funding in general; he expresses dissatisfaction with the National Institutes of Health and peer review systems; and he decries “flash” science, which often leads to premature conclusions and publications that later have to be retracted.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1974 Williams College BA Biology
1979 State University of New York, Albany PhD Biology

Professional Experience

Washington University in St. Louis

1982
Post Doctorate, Molecular Biology

The Rockefeller University

1982 to 1996
Assistant Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
1979 to 1981

Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Fund Postdoctoral Fellow

1981 to 1982

National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellow

1985

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Background and College Years
1

Grew up on dairy farm near Clinton, New York. Tenth of twelve children. Father oral surgeon; mother housewife and career counselor. Early interest in science. Older brother also scientist in related area; some collaboration. Chose Williams College in order to play hockey. Worked hard only in science classes. Electron microscopy for honors thesis. Advisor George Vankin. No real research possibilities.

Graduate School Years
7

Choosing State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany). Excellent scientists in poor department. Phage genetics and molecular biology. Sometimes went to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for new techniques. Advisor David Shub still has four of his five papers; only one published. Good training and good postdoctoral work offer. Immersed in viral capsids but still interested in neurobiology. Wanted to move from prokaryote system of phage genetics and molecular biology to eukaryote system to take advantage of rapidly developing equipment and techniques.

Postgraduate Years
12

Washington University in St. Louis. Combined genetics with gene expression. Robert Roeder’s lab stimulating, competitive, and best in biochemistry. Importance of experiments and experimental expertise. Wanted to express mammalian histone; concentrated on cell cycle regulation to learn about basic growth control in cells. Collaboration with Joseph Nevins; intellectual relationship with James Darnell.

Rockefeller University
21

Rockefeller’s European system isolating; changing now. More balanced competition among schools. Tenure. Heintz’s own lab size and management style. Strong work ethic, critical thinking in design, imagination in experiments, and intellectual aggressiveness needed for good science. Cell populations not homogeneous. Hopes to find how particular cell in complex tissue knows what genes to express and when. Working in cerebellum; only five different cell types, organized and developed in particular way. Cerebellum controls movement, so experiments not lethal. Cerebellum dormant until birth. Purkinje cell. Personal aspect important. Funding in general; his own funding. Dissatisfaction with National Institutes of Health study sections. Solid science versus “flash.”

Index
31

About the Interviewer

Robert Kohler
Naomi Morrissette