Hans C. Oettgen

Born: January 23, 1958 | Cologne, DE

Hans C. Oettgen was born in Germany, but raised in Connecticut. As a child, he spent time in his father's lab and came to understand research when he helped with the isolation of a particular protein from peanuts, which is expressed on some cancer malignancies. He attended Williams College, then went to Harvard Medical School; during one summer, he worked on B lymphocytes with Cornelius P. Terhorst at the Dana-Farber Cancer Center. He moved into the MD/PhD program and continued to work with Terhorst, writing his thesis on biochemical characterization of T-cell-receptor structure. As a postdoc with Philip Leder, he developed a mouse without the gene for immunoglobulin E (IgE). He is now at Children's Hospital in Boston, researching the role of IgE in immune function. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0590
No. of pages: 89
Minutes: 300

Interview Sessions

William Van Benschoten
21-22 January 2004
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

Hans C. Oettgen was born in Cologne, Germany, spent some time in Nairobi, Kenya, but was raised mostly in New Canaan, Connecticut, the eldest of three children. His mother was a teacher; his father was a researcher in immunology and a physician in internal medicine who, eventually, worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Oettgen enjoyed school, especially math, reading, and spending time outdoors. His family often went camping in the Adirondacks and spent summers traveling by train and/or by boat throughout Europe. He had a chemistry set though his interest in math led him more towards computer programming than performing experiments. He spent time in his father's lab during his childhood, but in high school he worked in some of his father's colleagues labs, mostly doing technical work without understanding the fundamental scientific questions being investigated, until he had the chance to do research involving the isolation of a particular protein from peanuts, called peanut lectin, which binds to a sugar structure and is expressed on some cancer malignancies. He was also in the Boy Scouts of America, was (and is) an avid photographer, and knew that he wanted a broad liberal arts education even though he intended to pursue science or medicine as a career. Oettgen matriculated at Williams College, majoring in chemistry, but ultimately choosing to attend medical school. He began his medical studies at the Harvard Medical School; the summer after his first year, though, gave him the chance to work with Cornelius P. Terhorst at the Dana-Farber Cancer Center conducting research on B lymphocytes, using protein chemistry to describe B-1 and B-2. While at Harvard he decided to move into the MD/PhD program and continued to work with Terhorst, writing his thesis on the biochemical characterization of T-cell-receptor structure. After completing his residency in 1990, Oettgen was slotted to undertake a postdoctoral fellowship with David Baltimore at the Whitehead Institute, but Baltimore's move to Rockefeller University in New York City prompted Oettgen to do his fellowship with Philip Leder in genetics. As a postdoc he developed a mouse without the gene for immunoglobulin E (IgE). He then accepted a position at Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, researching the role of IgE in immune function. At the end of the interview Oettgen talks about the process of writing journal articles; balancing family and career; his leisure activities; the source of his ideas; and the impact of technology on his work. He concludes the interview with a discussion of competition and collaboration in science; the grant-writing process; the role of the scientist in educating the public about science; the impact of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences on his work; his children; and the benefits of having a clinical practice and doing basic science. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1980 Williams College BA
1987 Harvard Medical School PhD Immunology

Professional Experience

Boston Children's Hospital

1987 to 1990
Resident in Pediatric
1990 to 1994
Clinical Immunology Fellow

Harvard Medical School

1987 to 1993
Clinical Fellow in Pediatrics
1994 to 1995
Instructor in Pediatrics
1995 to 2005
Assistant Professor in Pediatrics

Honors

Year(s) Award
1979

Phi Beta Kappa, Williams College

1980

Sigma Xi, Williams College

1980

Highest Honors in Chemistry, Williams College

1987

Shipley Prize for Research, Harvard Medical School

1991

Janeway Research Scholarship, Children's Hospital, Boston, MA

1995

Allergy Research Award, Pharmacia Allergy Research Foundation

1995

Education and Research Trust Award, American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology

1996

Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences Grant

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Childhood travels. New Canaan, Connecticut. Family background. Parents. Siblings. Childhood interests and experiences. Early schooling. Influential elementary school teachers. Junior high and high school experiences. Reasons for becoming a scientist. Extracurricular activities.

College and Graduate and Medical School Years
18

Religion. Interest in photography. Decision to pursue science rather than photography. Attends Williams College for its liberal arts focus. Parental expectations. Majors in chemistry. Summer position working with Cornelius P. Terhorst at the Dana-Farber Cancer Center. Attends Harvard Medical School. Medical school coursework. Enters MD/PhD program. Doctoral research on thebiochemical characterization of T-cell-receptor structure.

Postdoctoral and Faculty Years
37

Postdoctoral fellowship in genetics with Philip Leder. Develops mouse without the gene for immunoglobulin E (IgE). Leder's management style. Oettgen's wife. Accepts a position at Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Setting up his lab. Research on the role of IgE in immune function. Future research in immunology on the role of IgE in contact sensitivity.

Final Thoughts
48

Applications of his research. Teaching responsibilities. Writing journal articles. Balancing family and career. Leisure activities. Professional and personal goals. Patents. History of science. Tenure at Harvard University. Competition and collaboration in science. The national scientific agenda. Educating the publicabout science. Privatization of scientific research. The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. Benefits of having a clinical practice and doing basic science.

Index
87

About the Interviewer

William Van Benschoten