Gary Karpen

Born: November 5, 1956 | New York, NY, US

Gary Karpen was born in New York City. In junior high Karpen had an excellent biology teacher who fired his interest in that subject. Because Brandeis was strong in pre-med, he decided to apply for early acceptance. Soon, he decided to become a researcher, inspired by his childhood love of tinkering and solving puzzles. He next spent three years as a technician in Gerold Schubiger's lab at the University of Washington before crossing the bridge to the genetics department for graduate school. There, he worked in Larry Sandler's and Charles Laird's labs, transforming ribosomal genes into flies. After his postdoc at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, Karpen joined the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, where he has his own lab and teaches the occasional course. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0445
No. of pages: 118
Minutes: 450

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
15-17 August 2000
Salk Institute for Biological Sciences, La Jolla, California

Abstract of Interview

Gary Karpen was born in New York City but grew up in Norwood, New Jersey. His older sister became an astrophysicist and his younger brother an MD/PhD who does both research and clinical work. His father joined the army at the age of 17 to fight in World War II, coming home severely wounded. Forgoing the GI Bill, Gary's father did not go to college but went into his father's construction business. When he was in his 50's Mr. Karpen sold his business, got an education degree, and became a teacher of high-school shop. Karpen's mother was a college graduate and eventually got a PhD in library science. Karpen's grandparents were Orthodox Jews, so his family was observant, though tending more toward Conservative Judaism, and being Jewish was very important in Karpen's youth. In junior high school Karpen had an excellent biology teacher who fired his interest in that subject. In high school Karpen also liked French and English, particularly enjoying reading classical science fiction. He says he procrastinated and did not work especially hard, but he was nevertheless assigned to the honors track. Because Brandeis was strong in pre-med and because Karpen loved biology, he decided to apply for early acceptance, successfully, as it turned out. There he discovered that the "tinkering" he and his father had done together over the years resolved into a love of solving puzzles, of figuring out how things worked or fit together, and he knew he did not want to practice medicine but to be a researcher. From Brandeis he went to the University of Washington to be a technician in Gerold Schubiger's lab. He spent three years in this position before crossing the bridge to the genetics department for graduate school, where he worked in Larry Sandler's and Charles Laird's labs, transforming ribosomal genes into flies. He also met and married Monica Medina, and they had their first child during these years. From Seattle the Karpens went to Washington, D.C., where Karpen had accepted a postdoc at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, working on centromeres in Allan Spradling's lab. Another child, a daughter, made her appearance during this time. After his postdoc, Karpen took a position at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. There he established his own lab, and he teaches the occasional course. He continues quite happily to work on heterochromatin chromosome inheritance and centromere identity; to explore his Jewish heritage; to seek funding; to publish his work; to mentor the people in his lab; and to hang out with his children.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1978 Brandeis University BS
1987 University of Washington PhD

Professional Experience

Carnegie Institution of Washington

1987 to 1991
Department of Embryology, Postdoctoral Fellow

Salk Institute for Biological Studies

1997
Department of Genetics, Associate Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
1993 to 1997

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Family background. Karpen's siblings' careers in science. Importance of religion in the family. Early schooling. Influential teachers. Early love of biology. His brush with the counterculture during high school.

College and Technician Years
16

Enters Brandeis University. His fascination with history. Joins Jeffrey C. Hall's lab. Ralph Greenspan helps him decide to pursue biomedical research instead of medicine. Develops an interest in sculpture. Influences that led him to become interested in biology. More on his decision to pursue clinical research insteadof medicine. Joins the Gerold Schubiger lab at the University of Washington as a technician. Genesis of his interest in genetics.

Graduate Years
27

Enters University of Washington to study genetics. Has both Laurence Sandler and Charles Laird as advisors. Works in Sandler's lab at first, but eventually switches completely to Laird's. Works on transforming ribosomal genes into flies. Influential teachers. Karpen's project on vertebrate limb regeneration in theSchubiger lab. Laird's and Schubiger's mentoring styles. Finds time to marry Monica Medina and father his first child, a son.

Postgraduate Years
33

Begins his postdoc in the Allan C. Spradling lab, doing research on centromeres at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Allan C. Spradling and transformants. Carnegie as a wonderful place to work. Balancing family, which now includes a daughter, and both his and his wife's careers. His parents' understanding of Karpen's research.

Years at Salk Institute for Biological Studies
40

Becomes interested again in Judaism. Accepts a position at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Teaching duties. Karpen's lab. His lab management style. Ethnic and gender issues in science. Funding. Terence M. Murphy, Karpen's first graduate student. His current work on the structure and function of centromeres. Karpen's administrative responsibilities and travel commitments. Being divorced and balancing family and career. His current research onheterochromatin chromosome inheritance, and centromere identity. Possible applications of his research. Collaborations, competition, patents. Karpen's general research objectives.

Index
116

About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen