Marjorie A. Oettinger

Born: December 7, 1961 | Boston, MA, US

Marjorie A. Oettinger grew up in Boston, Massachusetts and studied biology at Harvard. She worked in the Kevin Struhl lab as an undergraduate, where she enjoyed lab work and trained other students. Next, Oettinger entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's graduate program in the health sciences and technology. While working in David Baltimore's lab, she collaborated with David G. Schatz on the recombination of V(D)J in fibroblasts and discovered that RAG-1 and RAG-2 synergistically activate V(D)J recombination. Oettinger now works at Harvard. She discusses her varied lab experiences and explains that her criteria for choosing research projects must include factors like fundability and probability of publications not just interest to her. For this reason she feels that private grants like the Pew Scholars are wonderful. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0553
No. of pages: 113
Minutes: 450

Interview Sessions

Andrea R. Maestrejuan
10-12 February 1997
Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

Marjorie A. Oettinger grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, the younger of two children. Her father was a professor at Harvard University; her mother taught biology at Harvard University; and her brother went to Harvard University as well. Her father's family was from Nürnberg; they left before World War II, lived in France for several years, and then came to America. Later, Oettinger visited Germany with her father, both finding it a distressing experience. She attended the Commonwealth School in Boston for her last two years of high school, though with her parents' influence on her interests, she was had difficulty deciding what she wanted to pursue as a career. Oettinger entered Harvard thinking she would major in physics, but when she read Gunther S. Stent's Molecular Genetics she decided on biology. She worked in the Kevin Struhl lab as an undergraduate and decided to pursue both a PhD and an MD Working under Struhl, she enjoyed the intellectual challenge and the camaraderie of lab work. While still an undergraduate, she trained high school students and undergraduates in the lab. After working in Struhl's lab for a year Oettinger entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s graduate program in the health sciences and technology (HST). She attended a David Baltimore lecture on allelic exclusion and immediately decided to enter the Baltimore lab. There she collaborated with David G. Schatz on the recombination of V(D)J in fibroblasts. She discovered that RAG-1 and RAG-2 synergistically activate V(D)J recombination, explaining why she was predisposed to accept the idea that nonidentical genes with related functions could be located near each other. Oettinger was uncertain about her future after graduate school. She finally decided not to pursue an M. D; instead she accepted a faculty position at Harvard. At this point in the interview, she reflected on the status and successes of her own lab; her collaboration with the Martin F. Gellert lab; collaboration and competition in science in general; differences between the David Baltimore lab and the Kevin Struhl lab; the importance of camaraderie in the lab; and funding. She concludes the interview by discussing her dismay over the increasing tendency to fund clinical rather than basic research. She feels that her criteria for choosing research projects must now include factors like fundability and probability of publications rather than just interest or importance to her. For this reason she feels that private and interim grants like the Pew Scholars award are wonderful. While teaching in China for a month, she found that scientists there were chosen for political reasons rather as a matter of merit, but that they had a great deal of the newest and best equipment. The interview ends with Oettinger's insights on aspects of child-bearing and -rearing and her view of the need for further research on human infertility. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1983 Harvard University AB Biochemical Sciences
1991 Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD Biology

Professional Experience

Harvard University

1979 to 1984
Lecturer of Math

Harvard College

1991 to 1998
Tutor in Biochemical Sciences

Harvard Medical School

1991 to 1996
Assistant Professor, Department of Molecular Biology and Department of Genetics
1996 to 1998
Associate Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
1992 to 1996

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

1996

Leukemia Society Scholar

Table of Contents

Early Years and College
1

Family background. Visits Germany with her father. Father's professional background. Parental expectations. Determination to do well in math and science. Early education. Attends the Commonwealth School in Boston. Competes for grades with her brother in high school. Early aspiration to be a Mathematician. Choosing an academic major in college. Exposure to science as a girl. Father's hobbies. Father's work with computers. Growing up Jewish in Boston. Anti-Semitism. Impact of the Holocaust Oettinger family. Mother's Influence. Gunther S. Stent's Molecular Genetics.

Undergraduate Research and Graduate Years
31

Works in the Kevin Struhl lab as an undergraduate. Decides to pursue both a PhD and an MD. Freshman year of college. Social consciousness. Decision to do medical research. Enjoys the intellectual challenge and the camaraderie of lab work. Training high school students and undergraduates in the lab. Identifying students who love science. Applying to graduate programs. MassachusettsInstitute of Technology (MIT). Graduate program in the health sciences and technology at MIT. Attends a David Baltimore lecture on allelic exclusion. Enters the Baltimore lab. David G. Schatz on the recombination of V(D)J in fibroblasts. Discovers RAG-1 and RAG-2 synergistically activate V(D)J recombination. Predisposed to accept the idea that non-identical genes with related functions could be located near each other.

Faculty Years
62

Importance of timing in developing a scientific career. Accepts a faculty position at Harvard. Decides not to pursue an MD. Collaboration with the Martin F. Gellert lab. Deciding how large her lab should be.

Reflections on Science and Her Career
62

Collaboration and competition in science. Differences between the David Baltimore lab and the Kevin Struhl lab. Preference for a small lab. Imanishi-Kari affair. Funding. Criteria for choosing research projects. Private funding and interim grants in biomedical research. China and the nature of Chinese science. The role of gender in the scientific community. Balancing family and career. The need for further research on human infertility.

Index
111

About the Interviewer

Andrea R. Maestrejuan