Markus D. Meister

Born: February 24, 1960 | Siegsdorf, DE

Markus D. Meister was born in Siegsdorf, Germany. When he was seven, the family moved to Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. Markus remembers visiting his father at work and walking through a particle accelerator tunnel. He attended the University of Munich, but not feeling challenged, chose to attend the California Institute of Technology for his PhD, and was recruited into Edward Stone's cosmic-ray lab. During this time, Meister attended a colloquium given by Howard C. Berg about flagellar motion, a talk that pushed Markus in the direction of biology. He spent a summer in Berg's lab and was given permission to write his PhD thesis for Berg. As a postdoc in Dennis Baylor's lab at Stanford, Meister developed an interest in neuroscience and human visual perception. He accepted an assistant professorship at Harvard Medical School, where he now has tenure. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0495
No. of pages: 65
Minutes: 350

Interview Sessions

Andrea R. Maestrejuan
18, 20 and 25 November 1998
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

Markus D. Meister was born in Siegsdorf, Germany, a small town in Swabian Germany, in the foothills of the Alps. His father completed a PhD in physics, and when Markus was a young boy the family moved to the village of Ranco, Italy, near the small town of Ispra, where Markus's father worked for Euratom. Markus's mother was a housewife, staying at home with Markus and his younger brother. When Markus was seven the family moved to Brookhaven National Laboratory in upstate New York, where his father worked for two years. They lived on site in barracks that were still used to house visitors. Markus's father was able to take his children to work there, as he had not been able to do at Euratom. Markus particularly remembers walking through a particle accelerator tunnel and seeing the particle-bending magnets. As a child, Markus loved mathematics (his father was once accused of raising a "math animal"), and he considered studying math at university, but his father advised against it so going into physics was inevitable. After returning to Europe, Markus went to the "European School," a school that had been established for the children of Euratom employees, as they came from many different countries and spoke different languages. His curriculum in high school was the modern language/natural sciences curriculum; his languages were French and English and his science physics. Markus attended the University of Munich, in part because the political situation in Italy was chaotic; at the university he felt less challenged than he had expected to, and he decided to apply to schools in the United States. He was accepted into the PhD program at California Institute of Technology and spent his first year or so trying to catch up to his classmates. He was recruited into Edward C. Stone's cosmic-ray lab, a place he found exciting, and sometimes had the night shift at the jet propulsion lab. When NASA's budget was radically reduced Markus began to look around for an alternative; he decided to switch his course of study to biology. Howard C. Berg had given a colloquium about flagellar motion to physicists, a talk that really pushed Meister in that direction. He spent a summer in Berg's lab and was given permission to write his PhD thesis for Berg, as long as it dealt with the physics of biological systems. Meister accepted a postdoc at Stanford University in Denis Baylor's lab. From there the rigor of neuroscience attracted him, and he developed an interest in human visual perception. He considered a position at the University of California at San Diego but decided to accept Harvard's offer of an assistant professorship in the medical school. He now has tenure there and continues to enjoy his research; to look for funding; to publish; and to balance his work and his life with his wife, Elizabeth Anne Gibb, an architect, and his young daughter, Michela. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
University of Munich BA
1987 California Institute of Technology PhD Physics

Professional Experience

Stanford University

1987 to 1991
Postdoctoral Fellow

Harvard Medical School

1991 to 1995
Assistant Professor
1995 to 1998
Associate Professor
1998 to 1999


Year(s) Award
1993 to 1997

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years

Family background. Schooling in Italy. Hiking in the Alps. Boyhood interest in electronics. Family's brief stay in the United States at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Decision to study physics. Childhood fascination with mathematics. Meister's religious background. Father's work for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Graduate School Years

Applying for graduate school. Enters the Edward C. Stone lab at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Experiences on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Physics Exchanged for Biology

Decision to shift from physics to biology. Impact of a lecture by Howard C. Berg on Meister's career. Studying flagellar bacteria in the Berg lab. Postdoc in Denis A. Baylor's lab at Stanford University. Meister's attraction to the rigor of neuroscience. His empirical and philosophical interest in human visual perception. Funding. His wife's architectural career. Considers accepting a position at University of California, San Diego. Accepts position at Harvard University Medical School.

Later Years

Attending the University of Munich. Reasons for pursuing a science career in the U. S. The lure of immediate results in neuroscience. Works concurrently in the physics and biology departments at Caltech. Proposed brain mapping project in neuroscience. The need for general organizing principles in biology. The importance of mathematics in the training of future natural scientists. The genesis of Meister's multi-electrode recording technology. Meister's preference for making new observations rather than developing new technologies. Clinical applications of Meister's work. His research goals.


About the Interviewer

Andrea R. Maestrejuan