John J. Ngai

Born: November 21, 1958 | New York City, NY, US

John J. Ngai was born in New York City. He attended Pomona College because of their good science program, and came to love school in a way he had not previously. During his senior year, he worked with Elias Lazarides at Caltech, where he wrote his senior thesis. He returned to Lazarides' lab for graduate school. Under Lazarides' direction, students took no classes, focusing on lab work. After a postdoc at Columbia, Ngai took a position at University of California, Berkley, where his wife worked in his lab; she is largely responsible for having developed an anosmic mouse, a breakthrough that has been patented. His lab is also studying smell in zebrafish. Ngai is now head of the graduate program of the Neuroscience Institute. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0546
No. of pages: 111
Minutes: 400

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
1-3 February 2000
University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California

Abstract of Interview

John J. Ngai, the youngest of three children, was born in New York City and grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey. His parents, who had left China after World War II, were both doctors, his father in anesthesiology, his mother in pharmacology. Other relatives, also in medical and scientific fields, left China for Canada, Taiwan, or Europe, and John visited those in Taiwan several times as a child, sometimes staying with his grandparents for six months. His mother also took the children to Sweden when she was on sabbatical, and it was there that John started first grade. Though he did not like school particularly, finding it uninspiring, he always liked science. He began eighth grade in a school in Taiwan, coming back in the middle of the year. He had not done outstandingly well academically, and he says he tended to "goof off," so his parents decided to send him to a private high school. When he began Fieldston School he discovered that his classmates were intelligent, motivated, and hard-working, and he became so himself. He had excellent science teachers and decided that he wanted to go into medicine. He was accepted into Pomona College, a good school with very good science, and, importantly, away from home. His grandfather had a friend in the administration, so the school was acceptable to his parents, and off he went. He loved school at last, doing science as much as possible. He met Lisa Brunet there; after several years of cross-country commuting, they married and now have two daughters. Meanwhile, his biology teacher was leaving as Ngai approached his senior year; he sent John to Elias Lazarides at Caltech to ask for a place in his lab. There he wrote his senior thesis, which won the Vaile Prize for the best senior thesis. He began graduate school at Harvard but spent only a year there, returning to Lazarides' lab at California Institute of Technology. Lazarides worked his students very hard; they took no classes, just worked in the lab and had journal clubs. Ngai also traveled to New York City often to see his family and his fiancée. When he finished his PhD he accepted a postdoc at Columbia, in Richard Axel's lab, working on olfaction. During his five years at Columbia, John married Lisa and they had one child and another on the way. At this point he had to decide between job offers from Rockefeller University and University of California at Berkeley. Berkeley was the easy choice, so they all moved back to California; there Lisa's PhD is put to work in John's lab; she is largely responsible for having developed an anosmic mouse, a breakthrough that has been patented. His lab is also studying smell in zebrafish. John is now head of the graduate program of the Neuroscience Institute. He was on a search committee, he has study sections, and he teaches a fairly heavy load, all in addition to running his lab; writing grants; spending time with his daughters; and visiting his family in New York. Occasionally he lets his mind wander by watching television or playing around on his computer. Mostly, though he spends his time trying to understand the brain circuitry that controls the sense of smell. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1980 Pomona College BA
1987 California Institute of Technology PhD

Professional Experience

California Institute of Technology

1987 to 1988
Postdoctoral Fellow, Division of Biology

Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons

1988 to 1992

University of California, Berkeley

1992 to 1995
Class of 1933 Assistant Professor of Neurobiology, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology
1995 to 1998
Assistant Professor
1998 to 2001
Associate Professor


Year(s) Award
1988 to 1991

Howard Hughes Fellow of the Life Sciences Research Foundation

1993 to 1996

McKnight Scholars Award in Neuroscience

1994 to 1998

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years

Family background. Life in Teaneck, New Jersey. Travels to and school in Taiwan and Sweden. Early attraction to science. Parents' high expectations. Lack of interest in school. Attending private high school. Becoming motivated and hard-working. Decides on medicine. Interest in photography.

College Years

Matriculates at Pomona College. Excellent science teachers further develop his love of science. Hard work. Meets his future wife, Lisa Brunet. Biology teacher leaves Pomona, sending Ngai to Elias Lazarides' lab at California Institute of Technology. Prize-winning senior thesis.

Graduate Years

Attends Harvard for one year. Returns to Lazarides' lab at California Instituteof Technology. Finishes PhD and marries fiancée. Accepts postdoc in RichardAxel's lab at Columbia University. Works on olfaction. He and Lisa have theirfirst child; another on the way.

His Own Lab

Accepts assistant professorship at University of California, Berkeley. Setting up and managing his lab. Lab makeup. Lisa's research associateship in his lab. Writing grants. Publishing. Lisa's anosmic mouse and first paper from the lab.

Neuroscience Institute

Administrative duties as head of graduate program. Institute. Teaching philosophy and practice. Competition and collaboration. Patents vs. licenses. Goals. Creativity and luck. Balancing work and family life.


About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen