Dimitar B. Nikolov

Born: March 5, 1966 | Sofia, BG

Dimitar B. Nikolov grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria, the only child of a mother who is still a chemist and a father who was an electrical engineer. Nikolov often accompanied his mother to her lab, and he feels that he is a scientist because of both genes and upbringing. He enrolled in the biotechnology program at Sofia University, and he completed master's degrees in both physics and biology. After the fall of the Berlin Wall it became easier for Nikolov to attend a foreign university, and he decided to apply to a PhD program in the United States. He chose Rockefeller University at first for neuroscience, but he later switched to structural biology and worked on transcription proteins in Steven Burley's lab. After finishing his PhD, Nikolov accepted a faculty position at Sloan-Kettering Institute. His research has focused on axon guidance molecules in early development. Nikolov discusses his funding history, the impact of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences grant on his research, and his belief that collaboration between academia and industrial science is important. He concludes his interview with a discussion of his professional goals and his future research on cell signaling and communication in neural development. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0619
No. of pages: 106
Minutes: 400

Interview Sessions

5-7 July 2005
Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York, New York

Abstract of Interview

Dimitar B. Nikolov grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria, the only child of a mother who is still a chemist and a father who was an electrical engineer. His paternal grandparents lived with them and cared for Nikolov while his parents worked. Nikolov often accompanied his mother to her lab, and he feels that he is a scientist because of both genes and upbringing. He attended local schools (all schools in Bulgaria were public), which he thinks gave him a broader and better education than most American children get. He always liked physics and math classes and competed in national contests, doing so well that he did not have to take the entrance exam required of everyone else and could go to whatever school he chose. He enrolled in the biotechnology program at Sofia University partly to avoid compulsory military service, as permitted by the higher educational system in Bulgaria, and he finished master's degrees in both physics and biology. He worked in Peter Antonov's laboratory on plant membrane fusion for his degree in biology. During college he also met and married his wife, who was in the same program. After the fall of the Berlin Wall it became easier for Nikolov to attend a foreign university, and since the majority of good papers were from the United States, he decided to apply to a PhD program here. He chose Rockefeller University at first for neuroscience, but he changed his mind, switching to structural biology and working on transcription proteins in Steven Burley's lab. He describes the graduate program at Rockefeller; Burley's laboratory; a typical day in graduate school; and the process of doing x-ray crystallography. He talks about his graduate work on the structure of the TATA box transcription initiation elements. Meanwhile, his wife had paused her PhD studies to have their first child and then, nine years later, their second. She has since become manager of a lab at Rockefeller. After finishing his PhD, Nikolov decided against a postdoc and accepted a very good offer of a faculty position at Sloan-Kettering Institute. He talks about setting up his lab, its make-up, and his management style. His research has focused on axon guidance molecules in early development, for which he hopes to find practical applications. Nikolov discusses his funding history, the impact of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences grant on his research, and his belief that collaboration between academia and industrial science is important. He explains his grant-writing process, some of his professional duties and teaching responsibilities, and goes into detail about his current research in structural biology on angiopoietic receptors and ligands. He tells how he writes journal articles, how he sets his research agenda, what he thinks of competition in science, and his thoughts on how the national scientific agenda should be set. Nikolov continues with more insight into his views on improving science education in the United States and the role of the scientist in increasing public interest in science. He concludes his interview with a discussion of his professional goals and his future research on cell signaling and communication in neural development.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1991 Sofia University BS/MS Biology and Physics
1996 The Rockefeller University PhD

Professional Experience

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

1996 to 2006

Honors

Year(s) Award
1999

New York City Council Speaker's Award for Biomedical Research

1999 to 2002

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

2001

Bressler Scholars Award, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

2002

Boyer Award, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Table of Contents

Childhood, College, and Graduate School
1

Family background. Mother. Mother's career. Father. Educational system inBulgaria. Influential high school teacher. High school competitions in math andscience. Childhood interests. Living in Bulgaria as a Soviet bloc country. Religion. Attends the biotechnology program at Sofia University. Highereducational system in Bulgaria. Decision to pursue biology. Attends an English-speaking high school in Bulgaria. Working in Peter Antonov's laboratory onplant membrane fusion for master's degree in biology. reasons for becoming aprincipal investigator. College experiences. Biotechnology program at SofiaUniversity. Degrees in biology and physics. Meets and marries wife. Genderissues in science. Reasons for attending graduate school at RockefellerUniversity. Prominence of foreign students at Rockefeller. Graduate programat Rockefeller. Works for Stephen K. Burley using structural biology to study transcription proteins. Burley's laboratory. Typical day in graduate school. Process of doing x-ray crystallography. Graduate work on the structure of theTATA box transcription initiation elements.

Reflections on Life in Bulgaria and Graduate School, and Becoming Faculty
44

Growing up in Sofia, Bulgaria. Extracurricular activities in high school andcollege. Influential college physics professor. Children. More on Nikolov'sgraduate work on transcription. More on the graduate program at RockefellerUniversity. Accepts a position at Sloan-Kettering Institute. Setting up lab. Laboratory management style. Role in the lab. Research in structural biologyand biochemistry on axon guidance molecules in early development. Practicalapplications of research. Funding history. Pew Scholars Program in theBiomedical Sciences. Collaboration between academia and industrial science. Process of conducting scientific research.

The Scientific Life
65

Grant-writing process. Professional duties. Teaching responsibilities. More onlaboratory management style. Current research in structural biology onangiopoietic receptors and ligands. Writing journal articles. Competition inscience. Setting research agenda. Setting the national scientific agenda. Patents. Ethnic and gender issues in science. Percentage of women as graduate studentsand principal investigators (PI). Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute course inneurobiology. Professional goals. Reasons for becoming a PI. Improvingscience education in the United States. Role of the scientist in improving publicinterest in science. Science and religion. Future research on cell signaling andcommunication in neural development. Educating the public about science.

Index
103

About the Interviewer

Karen A. Frenkel

Karen A. Frenkel is a writer, documentary producer, and author specializing in science and technology and their impacts on society. She wrote Robots: Machines in Man’s Image (Harmony 1985) with Isaac Asimov. Her articles have appeared in many magazines and newspapers including The New York TimesCyberTimesBusiness Week, Communications Magazine, DiscoverForbesNew Media, Personal Computing, Scientific American, Scientific American MIND, The Village Voice, and Technology Review. Ms. Frenkel’s award-winning documentary films, Net Learning and Minerva’s Machine: Women and Computing aired on Public Television. She has been an interviewer for Columbia University’s Oral History Research Center’s 9/11 Narrative and Memory project, The National Press Foundation’s Oral History of Women in Journalism, and the International Psychoanalytic Institute for Training and Research’s Oral History. Professional memberships include: The Authors Guild, National Association of Science Writers, Writer’s Guild of America East, and New York Women in Film and Television: Past Member of the Board and Director of Programming. Her website is www.Karenafrenkel.com.