Caroline Kisker

Born: May 1, 1964 | Berlin, DE
Photograph of Caroline Kisker

Caroline F. Kisker grew up in West Berlin, West Germany, where she attended the John F. Kennedy German-American grammar school. After completing her Abitur, Kisker planned to study medicine, but due to the university placement lottery system she was not able to matriculate. In the interim, while working as a medical apprentice, she decided to pursue biochemistry at the Freie Universität in Berlin. She joined the large laboratory of Wolfram Saenger and had the opportunity to conduct laboratory work in Zürich, Switzerland and Frankfurt, Germany with Nobel Laureate Hartmut Michel. Her doctoral research centered on the determination of medically relevant tetracycline repressor protein, the results of which she published in Science . After completing their doctorates, Kisker and her husband pursued postdoctoral research in Douglas C. Rees's laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). At Caltech, Kisker solved the sulfite oxidase structure and published it in Cell . Kisker then accepted a position as a faculty member at State University of New York, Stony Brook. In 2000 Kisker received the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award and in 2006 she moved to the Rudolf Virchow Center at the University of Würzburg in Germany. She continues her research on structure-based drug design and DNA repair through the tools of structural biology. Kisker discusses the ways in which structural biology has changed throughout her career in response to new technologies and the ways in which funding affects her research and research choices.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0625
No. of pages: 135
Minutes: 623

Interview Sessions

Nicole C. Nelson
18-19 June 2008
The Rudolf Virchow Center, Würzburg, Germany

Abstract of Interview

Caroline F. Kisker grew up in West Berlin, West Germany, where she attended the John F. Kennedy German-American grammar school. After completing her Abitur, Kisker planned to study medicine, but due to the complicated university placement lottery system Kisker was not able to matriculate at a university. In the interim, while working as a medical apprentice, she decided to pursue biochemistry at the Freie Universität in Berlin. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kisker witnessed an influx of East German students to West Berlin and the universities there. She joined the large laboratory of Wolfram Saenger and throughout the course of her Diplom and PhD , Kisker had the opportunity to conduct laboratory work in Zürich, Switzerland, and Frankfurt, Germany, with Nobel Laureate Hartmut Michel. Her doctoral thesis centered on the determination of medically relevant tetracycline repressor protein, the results of which she published in Science. While working in the Saenger laboratory, Kisker met her husband Hermann Schindelin. After completing their doctorates, they both pursued postdoctoral research in Douglas C. Rees's laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). At Caltech, Kisker solved the sulfite oxidase structure and published it in Cell. At the end of her time as a postdoctoral fellow, Kisker accepted a position as a faculty member at State University of New York, Stony Brook. In 2000 Kisker received the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award and in 2006 she moved to the Rudolf Virchow Center at the University of Würzburg, in Germany. She continues her research on structure-based drug design and DNA repair through the tools of structural biology. Throughout her oral history Kisker discusses the differences between the German and American educational and scientific systems and many of the challenges associated with being a woman in science, especially having to balance work with family life during the transition from Stony Brook back to Germany. Kisker also talks about the ways in which structural biology has changed throughout her career in response to new technologies and the ways in which funding affects her research and research choices.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1991 Freie Universität Diplom
1994 Freie Universität PhD

Professional Experience

California Institute of Technology

1994 to 1997
Postdoctorate, Biochemistry

State University of New York at Stony Brook

1998 to 2001
Assistant Professor, Department of Pharmacological Sciences
2001 to 2006
Associate Professor, Department of Pharmacological Sciences
2006
Adjunct Professor, Department of Pharmacological Sciences

Rudolf Virchow Center

2006
Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
1995

Karl Ramsauer Award for PhD Thesis

1995 to 1997

Postdoctoral Fellowship Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

1998 to 1999

Targeted Research Opportunity Award SUNY Stony Brook

2016

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Education
1

Growing up in the enclosed city of West Berlin, West Germany. Grammar school at the John F. Kennedy German-American school in both German and English. Interest in medicine and decision to study biochemistry. Abitur and University lottery. Biochemistry at the Freie Universität. Differences between the American and German education systems. Interest in gymnastics. Trends regarding women in science.

Scholastics, Biochemistry, and Scientific Interests
19

Biochemistry studies at the Freie Universität with Wolfram Saenger. Interest in macromolecular crystallography. Meeting husband Hermann Schindelin. Working in laboratories in Zürich, Switzerland and Frankfurt, Germany.

Practicing Science in the United States and Abroad
24

Postdoctoral positions in the United States;. Two-body problem. Path to professorship in Germany; and Habilitation. Max Planck Institutes. Funding. University system in Germany. 

Berlin, Germany
30

Fall of the Berlin Wall. Influx of East German students. Resources available to West and East German scientists. Travel to East Berlin.

Undergraduate Thesis and Graduate Research and Technologies
35

Structure of Tetracycline Repressor Complex. Publication in Science. Crystallization and structure determination. Synchrotron in Hamburg, Germany; Synchrotron technology. Laboratory management.

Postdoctoral Research
66

California Institute of Technology. Douglas C. Rees. Collaboration with Amgen. Gamma carbonic anyhydrase from an archaeon. Sulfite oxidase structure published in Cell. Rees's management style. Advances in computing and crystallography,

State University of New York, Stony Brook
79

Looking for faculty positions. Decision to stay in the United States;. Difficulty of finding students. Management style. Interest in protein-DNA interactions.

Pew Scholar in Biomedical Sciences
90

Research on DNA repair. Familiarity with Pew. Annual Meetings. Costa Rica. Visa problems. Importance of bringing along the family. Interacting with people outside of structural biology. Publishing with Sylvie Doublié.

Funding Science
102

Applying for National Institutes of Health grants. Department of Energy funds. Problems associated with needing preliminary data in crystallography. Reviewing grants with Hermann.

Rudolf Virchow Center, University of Wurzburg
107

Decision to move back to Germany. Martin Lohse. Transitioning graduate students between Stony Brook and Würzburg. Difficulty of moving with school-age children.

Structural Biology and Biomedical Science
112

Moving beyond structure determination. Biochemistry. Structure based drug design. Sharing data and material. Competition.

Career and Family
124

Balancing life and work. Sharing responsibilities. Research collaborations with Hermann. Science education. Rudi's Forschercamp. Undergraduate education. Problem solving.

Index
133

About the Interviewer

Nicole C. Nelson