Christopher Rongo

Born: January 2, 1968 | Las Vegas, NV, US
Photograph of Christopher Rongo

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Christopher Rongo  was born in Las Vegas, Nevada. His undergraduate work at the University of California, San Diego fed his love of science, but a difficult research project in Ruth Lehmann's lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) nearly ended his scientific career. Refocusing his efforts and determination, he was finally able to succeed in Lehmann's lab, and graduate just before she left MIT. He faced similar obstacles in Josh Kaplan's lab, first at Massachusetts General  Hospital  and then at the University  of California , Berkeley . Despite setbacks as a graduate student and a postdoc, Rongo's career flourished as a professor. The majority of his interview is focused on his work with Rutgers and the challenges faced by principal investigators attempting to juggle social lives, funding applications, and their own desire to be at the bench. His increased interest in medical relevance in his work fuels his ambition. He looks towards what science has to offer in the future and is excited by the prospects that lie ahead, while openly facing the challenges presented to him. He discusses his receipt of the Pew Biomedical Scholars Award and what that has meant to his career. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0612
No. of pages: 87
Minutes: 242

Interview Sessions

Hilary Domush and David J. Caruso
19-20 May 2008
Waksman Institute for Microbiology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Abstract of Interview

Christopher Rongo was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, as an only child. Although science always interested him, he did not always have the determination to be a scientist. His undergraduate work at the University of California, San Diego fed his love of science, but a difficult research project in Ruth Lehmann's lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) nearly ended his scientific career. Refocusing his efforts and determination he was finally able to succeed in Lehmann's lab, and graduate just before she left MIT. He faced similar obstacles in Josh Kaplan's lab, first at Massachusetts General Hospital and then at the University of California, Berkeley. Despite setbacks as a graduate student and a postdoc, Rongo's career flourished as a professor. His early challenges prepared him to face the challenges set before a new PI, and ensured his continued success in neuroscience. The vast majority of his interview is focused on his work with Rutgers, what it is like being a PI, and the challenges faced by PIs attempting to juggle social lives, funding applications, and their own desire to be at the bench. In a time of pressure to publish and strong competition for funding, Rongo insists on moving forward. His increased interest in medical relevance in his work fuels his ambition. He looks towards what science has to offer in the future and is excited by the prospects that lie ahead, while openly facing the challenges presented to him. In addition, he discusses his receipt of the Pew Biomedical Scholars Award and what that has meant to his career.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1990 University of California, San Diego BA Molecular Biology
1996 Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD Biology

Professional Experience

Massachusetts General Hospital

1996 to 1997
Post-Doctorate, Genetics

University of California, Berkeley

1997 to 2000
Post-Doctorate, Molecular and Cell Biology

Waksman Institute of Microbiology

2000 to 2006
Assistant Professor, Genetics
2006 to 2009
Associate Professor, Genetics

Honors

Year(s) Award
1989 to 1990

Alumni Association Scholarship, University of California, San Diego

1990

John Muir College Most Outstanding Graduate, University of California, San Diego

1990

Phi Beta Kappa

1990

National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship

1997 to 2000

The Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research Post- Doctoral Fellowship

2000 to 2001

Johnson & Johnson Discovery Award

2001 to 2005

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

2002 to 2003

Johnson & Johnson Discovery Award

Table of Contents

Childhood
1

Growing up in Nevada. Only Child. Early interest in science. Gifted programs. Teachers. Increased interest in science. Parental expectations. Not accepted toIvy League. First year at UNLV. Transferred to UCSD and intensified studies. Focused on getting into good grad school. Didn't have time to enjoy city. Triedto avoid temptation. Enjoyed sailing With roommate. Larger class sizes butmore exciting course work. Joined David Brenner's lab senior year.

Graduate School
10

Applying to graduate school. Choosing MIT. John Muir Award. Phi BetaKappa. Parents reaction. No classmates chose MIT. No rotations first year. Strong bond between first year students. Choosing Ruth Lehmann's lab. Interestin cell biology. The Oskar gene. RNA localization. Competitive environment. Lehmann often gone from lab. Learning in competitive environment. Difficulties of graduate research. The writing process. Validation throughpublication. Finished just before Lehmann left MIT.

Postdoctoral Years
27

Neuroscience had a lot of potential. Encouraged by a talk by Richard Axel. Wanted intersection of neuroscience, cell biology, and developmental biology. The Kaplan Lab at Mass General. Lots of interaction between labs. Jointmeetings with Ruvkun lab. Why he chose C. elegans. Status of worm genomeproject. The move to Berkeley.

The Job Market
38

Opposite of postdoc applications. Interviewed a dozen places. Three orfour job offers. Why he chose Rutgers. Alone in the lab. Collaboration withBonnie Firestein. Published within first year. Attracting grad students. Academic rigor. Teaching philosophy.

The Pew Award
56

Awareness of award and its implications. Application to Rutgers internalcommittee. Conservatism and grant funding. Value of the Pew award. Relationships from the Pew.

Controls and the Aims of Science
64

Controlling all of the variables. Advantages and disadvantages of differing neuroscientific methods Changing modes of publication. Online journals. Publishing controversial findings. Foreign v. domestic students. Attrition fromthe scientific field

Scientific Outreach
71

Westinghouse science fair. Waksman Student Scholars program. Popularscientific programming for mass audiences. Scientific Competition. Europeanv. American model. Focus on medical relevance. Medical relevance inPew application. Media controversies. Stem Cells. Public misconceptions ofscience. Publicizing controversial findings. Ignoring need for consensus.

Life of a PI
80

Time commitment to lab work. Hobbies. Keeping intellectually balanced. Controversies as a result of media circus and lack of public knowledge. Understanding the scientific method. What is fundable. Funding affectingresearch choices. The job market for students.

Index
85

About the Interviewer

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007–2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis.

David J. Caruso

David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and editor for the Oral History Review. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds an annual training institute that focuses on conducting interviews with scientists and engineers, he consults on various oral history projects, like at the San Diego Technology Archives, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.  His current research interests are the discipline formation of biomedical science in 20th-century America and the organizational structures that have contributed to such formation.