Yuri A. Lazebnik

Born: February 3, 1958 | Severomorsk, RU

Yuri A. Lazebnik was born in Severomorsk, Russia. His family did not have much growing up, so Lazebnik worked through high school and college to support himself and his mother. He was an avid reader, enjoying the works of Jules Verne. As a teenager Barry Commoner's The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology made Lazebnik consider environmental science as a career. He studied biology and biochemistry as an undergraduate at St. Petersburg State University, continuing his education as a graduate student in Valerei  Vasiliev's lab, where he studied cell cycle. While he was in France as a visiting scientist, the August Putsch of 1991 occurred in Moscow, spurring Lazebnik's decision to move to the United States. Lazebnik joined the Earnshaw laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. He is now at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0537
No. of pages: 112
Minutes: 450

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
18-20 April 2001
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, Cold Spring Harbor, New York

Abstract of Interview

Yuri A. Lazebnik was born in Severomorsk, Russia. After his parents' divorce, his mother moved with him to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), but after she became ill, he was raised, for a few years, in Shakti by his maternal grandmother before returning to his mother's rearing. His father was in the navy, his mother was the valedictorian of her high school and went to college in Leningrad, training as a mathematician until Lazebnik was born—later she worked whatever jobs she could find. Lazebnik and his mother shared a two-room apartment with another family in a building situated between other buildings that housed various academic departments at the local university. He and his mother did not have much during the Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbechev eras; Lazebnik worked regularly through high school and college to support himself and his mother. He was an avid reader, enjoying the works of Jules Verne and other writers, though as a teenager Barry Commoner's The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology truly impacted his beliefs and made Lazebnik consider environmental science as a career. He joined St. Petersburg State University for his undergraduate degree in biology; he quickly changed his mind from pursuing ecology as a major since he could not find any advisor in that field. He progressed through the typical undergraduate coursework and applied to continue his education as a graduate student in the laboratory of Valerei Yu. Vasiliev. In Vasiliev's lab, Lazebnik's project was to study cell cycle, but in order to study cell cycle he needed a flow cytometer, a device that cost more than most departments' yearly budgets, possibly, according to Lazebnik, even more than the entire university's budget. So since he did not have the funds to purchase such a device he used the informal system of favor-swapping in Russia to obtain the materials he needed to build his own device. Lazebnik undertook postdoctoral studies in the N. N. Nikolsky laboratory at the Institute of Cytology of the Academy of Sciences, and then a short stint as a visiting scientist at the Commissariat á l'Énergie Atomique in France. Then the August Putsch of 1991 occurred in Moscow, spurring Lazebnik's decision to take a position in the United States; he received much support from William C. Earnshaw who expedited a work visa for Lazebnik. Lazebnik entered the Earnshaw laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland in November of 1991 and his family followed him the following month; he began his work on apoptosis. From Hopkins he moved on to a position at Cold Spring Harbor in New York. Throughout the interview Lazebnik reflects on life in Russia during the Brezhnev and Gorbachev years, especially as it compares to his life in the United States. At the end of the interview he talks about his community-service, editorial, and administrative responsibilities; balancing work and family life; his interest in aikido; the "corporatization" of scientific research; patents; and maintaining quality research in his lab. He concludes the interview with a discussion of moral relativism; the ethics of using animals in scientific research; the importance of learning the history of science; and the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1981 St. Petersburg State University MS Biology/Biochemistry
1986 St. Petersburg State University PhD Biochemistry

Professional Experience

Centre d’Études Nucléaire

1991
Fellow, UNESCO Human Genome Program

Johns Hopkins University

1991 to 1994
Fellow

Institute of Cytology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR

1986 to 1991
Research Associate

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

1994 to 1998
Assistant Investigator
1998 to 1999
Associate Investigator
1999 to 2002
Associate Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
1991

Fellowship, UNESCO Human Genome Program

1994

Postdoctoral First Prize, Johns Hopkins University

1995

Pew Scholarship in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Childhood and College in Russia
1

Family background. Early education in St. Petersburg. Childhood interests and activities. Difficulty of traveling in and out of the Soviet Union. Relaxed political atmosphere during the Brezhnev era. Striking impact of Gorbachev's reforms. Compares Russian society before and after the collapse of the Soviet system. Soviet educational system. Early interests. Growing interest in environmental science. Genesis of his interest in cancer. Religion. Job history in the Soviet Union. Reasons for attending St. Petersburg State University as an undergraduate. Coursework. Why he did not become an ecologist. Career alternatives after graduation.

Doctoral Work, Family Life, and Coming to the United States
28

Helps build a flow cytometer. Informal system of favor-swapping in Russia for needed material and goods. Graduation requirements for the PhD. Meets his wife, Gula N. Nourjanova. Children. Postdoc in the N. N. Nikolsky lab on cytometry and imunofluorescence. Decision to come to the United States to work in the William C. Earnshaw lab. Works briefly at the Commissariat á l'Énergie Atomique in France. Attempted communist coup in Russia. Processof learning English. Rapid adjustment to living in the United States. Early research in the Earnshaw lab. Work on apoptosis. Reaction to his first co-written paper on apoptosis.

Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory and Thoughts on Science
50

Cold Spring Harbor. Living in the New York City area. Writing his first grant. Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award. Writing journal articles. Teaching responsibilities. Compares students at State University of New York, Stony Brook, Watson School of Biomedical Sciences, and those in Russia. Balancing work and family. Lab management style.

Final Thoughts
70

Community-service, and editorial and administrative responsibilities. Interest in increasing his time at the bench. Aikido. Typical workday. Current research on apoptosis. Serendipity in scientific discovery. Competition in science. Growing corporatization of scientific research. Patents. Moral relativism. History of science. Immediate goals. Praises the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences.

Index
109

About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen