Mark A. Saper

Born: September 29, 1954 | Brooklyn, NY, US

Mark A. Saper was born in New York City. As a child he was interested in math and biology, writing an exceptional paper on protein biosynthesis. Saper attended the University of Connecticut, spending summers working at his uncle's engineering firm and Janos Varga's laboratory. His advisor was a professor of biophysics who steered him into chemistry; organic chemistry sparked his interest in biology. While at graduate school at Rice University, he studied the structure of sterols in Florante Quiocho's lab, until a Weizmann fellowship sent him to Israel. There and in Germany he worked on ribosomal crystallography. He is now an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, teaching and working on the structure of protein tyrosine phosphatases and protein secretion in Yersinia.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0496
No. of pages: 114
Minutes: 550

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
22-24 September 1999

Abstract of Interview

Mark A. Saper was born in New York City, where he lived for several years. His family moved to Connecticut when his father, an electronic engineer, took a job there. His mother had a degree in accounting but stayed home with the children (Mark and his two younger brothers) while they were still young. Then she went back to school and eventually began work as a data processor at Yale University. During this his father took a job in New Jersey, so Saper had responsibilities at home in addition to his schoolwork and Hebrew school. He manifested an early interest in and talent for mathematics, but his brother surpassed him, even becoming a mathematics professor. In high school Saper became a drum major, very interested in music, joining the marching band. He also liked biology, writing an exceptional paper on protein biosynthesis. After graduation from high school Saper used his bar mitzvah money to spend seven weeks in Israel.
Looking for a school with a good marching band and music program, Saper matriculated at the University of Connecticut. His freshman advisor was a professor of biophysics who steered him into chemistry; organic chemistry sparked his interest in biology. He worked one summer at his uncle's engineering firm and a later summer in Janos Varga's laboratory. After Saper and the University marching band visited Europe during his sophomore year, Saper found that he had to give up the serious pursuit of music to focus on science. He discovered crystallography in a biophysics class and decided to go to graduate school rather than medical school. He chose Rice University, where he studied the structure of sterols in Florante Quiocho's lab. He was also very interested in computers and graphics software, which he used to trace the polypeptide chain. He went again to Israel to present two papers.
Saper spent another year in Quiocho's lab until a Weizmann fellowship came through; then he went to Rehovot, Israel. His wife-to-be found a program in Jerusalem, so they were able to see each other enough to become engaged; they then returned to Houston to be married and then went back to Israel to finish Saper's postdoc. There and in Germany he worked on ribosomal crystallography in Joel Sussman's and Ada Yonath's labs. Next Saper accepted a position in Don Wiley's lab at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Harvard, where he was attempting to develop software to study human leukocyte antigen (HLA), working with Pamela Bjorkman.
He accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Michigan, where he remains today, teaching; working in his lab; publishing; working on the structure of protein tyrosine phosphatases and protein secretion in Yersinia; and balancing his work with life with his wife, Cindy, and his three sons.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1976 University of Connecticut BS Biophysics
1983 Rice University PhD Biochemistry

Professional Experience

Harvard University

1987 to 1990
Research Associate, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

University of Michigan

1990 to 1997
Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Chemistry
1990 to 1997
Assistant Research Scientist, Biophysics Research Division
1997 to 1998
Associate Professor, Department of Biological Chemistry
1997 to 1998
Associate Research Scientist, Biophysics Research Division

Weizmann Institute of Science

1984 to 1986
Postdoctoral Fellow

Honors

Year(s) Award
1979 to 1983

Robert A. Welch Foundation Award

1984

European Molecular Biology Organization Award

1985

Fulbright Foundation Scholarship

1993 to 1997

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences Award

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Family background. Downingtown. Childhood interests. His father's education and work. His mother's upbringing and data processing work. Saper's childhood fascination with tinkering. His many hobbies. Becoming a drum major in his high school band. Interest in biology. Writes an exceptional high school paper on protein biosynthesis. His musical interests. Visits a kibbutz in Israel for seven weeks.

College Years
26

Enrolls at University of Connecticut. His father's death. Works a summer at his uncle's engineering firm. Organic chemistry sparks his interest in biology. Interest in biochemistry. Spends a summer in the Janos Varga laboratory. Visits Europe as a member of the University of Connecticut marching band. His growing laboratory experience

Graduate School Years
39

Attends Rice University. Studies the structure of sterols in the Florante A. Quiocho laboratory. Dispute with a fellow laboratory member over ownership of a crystallography project. Setbacks and opportunities in the Quiocho laboratory. Saper's preoccupation with computers and graphics software. Traces the polypeptide chain using computer graphics. Presents two papers at a conferencein Israel. His innovative use of color photographs for his thesis.

Postdoctoral Years
49

Seeks postdoc positions in Israel. Meets his wife, Cindy C. Saper. Conducts his postdoc in the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Works on ribosomal crystallography in Joel Sussman's and Ada Yonath's labs. diffraction pattern of the 50 S ribosome crystals. Accepts a postdoc in the Don C. Wiley laboratory at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Developing software to study human leukocyte antigen (HLA). Collaborates with Pamela Bjorkman on first backbone trace of HLA

Later Years
72

Accepts a position at University of Michigan. Saper's involvement in Judaism and the Jewish community. Balancing family and career. Setting up his laboratory. Is almost scooped by another laboratory. Dispute with Nature over the publication of an article. Funding. Teaching responsibilities. Saper evaluates his achievements so far. Saper's current work on the structure of protein tyrosinephosphatases and protein secretion in Yersinia. Collaborates with James B. Bliska on crystallizing tyrosine phosphatase s. Issues of gender and race at University of Michigan. His students and their achievements.

Index
111

About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen