Charles N. Serhan

Born: November 2, 1954 | New York, NY, US

Charles N. Serhan grew up in Brooklyn and did his undergraduate work at State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he studied biochemistry and immunohistochemistry. Michael Heidelberger persuaded Serhan to go to graduate school at New York University and to work in the lab of Gerald Weissmann, where his interest in the role of neutrophils in inflammation led to Serhan's doctoral research. After finishing his PhD, Serhan became a visiting scientist at the Karolinska Institute. He collaborated with James L. Madarain studying white cells' interaction with epithelial cells, trying to accelerate healing. He studied lipoxins in trout and describes the accidental discovery of trout lipoxin. Serhan says that today's scientists lead pressured lives, and should not be evaluated by grants they receive or laboratory size.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0571
No. of pages: 237
Minutes: 460

Interview Sessions

Neil D. Hathaway
6, 8, 9, 12 July 1993, 27 June and 5 July 1994

Abstract of Interview

Charles N. Serhan grew up in Brooklyn, New York, the older of two children. His father, who retired early from shipping work, is of Lebanese descent, his mother Italian. When he was in junior high school, Serhan learned to play the vibraphone and played professionally for a year before college. Although he loved music and fantasized a musical career, he did not like the life of a musician. He had always liked and done well in science, so he decided to enter university, but he continued to play the vibraphone as well. He chose to specialize in biomedical science.
Serhan did his undergraduate work at State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he studied biochemistry and immunohistochemistry, doing research on cell separation. Michael Heidelberger persuaded Serhan to go to graduate school at New York University and to work in the lab of Gerald Weissmann. Serhan spent a summer working with Weissmann at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. Weissmann's interest in the role of neutrophils in inflammation led to Serhan's doctoral research on neutrophil remodeling.
After finishing his PhD Serhan took a visiting scientist position at the Karolinska Institute. There he met his future wife, Birgitta Schmidt, who now has a career as a dermatopathologist also at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Serhan was influenced by mentors Helen M. Korchak, Manfred Karnovsky, and Aaron J. Marcus and by reading The Art of Scientific Investigation and Men Like Gods. Michael Heidelberger gave him advice on how to be a good scientist and on the need to conduct both safe and risky experiments. He collaborated with James L. Madarain studying white cells' interaction with epithelial cells: he was trying to accelerate the healing of wounds. A family illness gave Serhan a more personal appreciation for the value of research and increased his desire to produce something with a clinical application. Serhan's research on the interaction of monosodium urate crystals and human neutrophils in platelets led to the discovery of tetraene compounds; he also continued his research on the lipoxinsand their role in regulating inflammation and on intracellular communication channels. He studied lipoxins in trout and describes the accidental discovery of trout lipoxin, discussing the pharmacological potential of the research and the relationship between science and technology.
The interview ends with a discussion of how Serhan advises young scientists to pursue their own interests, citing serendipitous findings that have had implications for the study of inflammation; how he believes that the funding of American science inhibits creativity; and that pharmacology is a basic but neglected discipline. Serhan talks more about his interest in the structural elucidation of cellular messengers; the biological action of lipoxins; the role of monocytes in inflammation; and his examinations of aspirin-sensitive asthmatics with Bruce Levy. Serhan says that today's scientists lead pressured lives, and it is a mistake to evaluate scientists by the number of grants they receive or by the size of their laboratories. He feels the need to tackle long-term research projects, projects that require long-term funding.
Serhan was invited to see Barbara McClintock accept her Nobel Prize, and he talks about Nobel Prize winners as role models. He mentions his lab members Jane Maddox, Joan Claria, and Boshkar Jacobodi; he encourages minority students to become scientists. Serhan concludes his interview with a discussion of the difficulty of balancing family life and work life, especially in a two-career family.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1978 State University of New York at Stony Brook BS Biochemistry
1982 Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at New York University School of Medicine PhD Experimental Pathology

Professional Experience

Karolinska Institute

1982 to 1986
Visiting Scientist

Brigham and Women’s Hospital

1986 to 1987
Research Fellow
1987 to 1991
Associate Biochemist
1992 to 1995
Biochemist
1995
Director, Center of Experimental Therapeutics and Reperfusion Injurry

Harvard Medical School

1986 to 1987
Research Associate
1987 to 1991
Assistant Professor of Medicine
1991 to 1995
Associate Professor of Medicine

Honors

Year(s) Award
1979

Marine Biological Laboratory Award for Most Outstanding Paper

1982 to 1984

Postdoctoral fellowship, National Institutes of Health

1984 to 1985

Swedish Medical Research Council Visiting Scientist Fellowship

1984 to 1987

Postdoctoral fellowship, Arthritis Foundation

1987 to 1988

Grant-in-aid award, Massachusetts affiliate, American Heart Association

1987 to 1990

J. V. Staterfield Arthritis Investigator, Arthritis Foundation

1987 to 1989

Medical Foundation Research Fellow, Medical Foundation, Inc.

1988 to 1991

Grant, Allergy and Infectious Diseases Branch, National Institutes of Health

1988 to 1992

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

1990 to 1995

Established investigatorship, American Heart Association National Center

1991 to 1994

Clifford M. Clarke Science Award, Arthritis Foundation

1992 to 1993

Proctor Fund grant, Harvard Medical School

Table of Contents

Childhood, Family History, Music, and Science
1

Lebanese ancestry. Childhood in Brooklyn. Father serves in the Korean War. Learns to play the vibraphone and plays professionally for a year before college. Tours with a band. Decides to enter the university but continues to play music on the side. Reasons for specializing in biomedical science. Childhood passion for science. Strong sense of family.

War, Music, and Graduate Work
27

Parallels between music and science. Competition. War. Vietnam War and the draft. Reading popular science. Musical interests. Works in the Gerald Weissmann lab at New York University (NYU). Michael Heidelberger. Interaction between science and technology. Religious background.

College, Religion, and Gerald Weissman's Lab
54

Meets future wife, Birgitta Schmidt, at the Karolinska Institute. Her career as a Dermatopathologist. Stopped playing music professionally. Enters State University of New York at Stony Brook. Part-time jobs. Studies biochemistry and immunohistochemistry. Pursues research on cell separation. Biochemistry program at Stony Brook. Immunologists in the New York region. International College at Stony Brook. Catholicism and science. Graduate school at NYU. Excited by the writings of Weissmann. Spends the summer working with Weissmann at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. Mandate of the National Institutes of Health. Education in the United States. Doctoral research on neutrophil remodeling.

Finishing Graduate School, Postdoctoral Years, and Mentors
99

Weissmann's interest in the role of neutrophils in inflammation. Adopts the Uppsala Universitet model for his thesis. Work of Rolando del Maestro on venule microscopy. Learning to write scientific papers. Weissmann's research on neutrophil activation and phagocytosis. Weissmann's concept of "frustrated phagocytosis" and its relationship to inflammation of the joints. Research on the oxidation of lipids. Weissmann's style and popular writings. Creativity and conformity in scientific research. Lab exchanges with Pierre Borgeat of Université Laval, Québec. Jane F. Maddox's research on lipoxins. Helen M. Korchak, Manfred Karnovsky, and Aaron J. Marcus.

Thoughts about Science, Collaboration, and Research
122

Influenced by reading The Art of Scientific Investigation and Men Like Gods. Michael Heidelberger's advice on how to be a good scientist. Need to conduct both safe and risky experiments. Interest in scientific biography. How tight funding encourages safe science and discourages risks. Public skepticism about basic science research. Danger of overselling science. Increasing complexity of biological sciences and need for theoretical synthesis. Scope of the term "biochemistry. " Collaborates with James L. Madara in studying white cells' interaction with epithelial cells. Trying to accelerate the healing of wounds. Desire to produce something with a clinical application. Weissmann's collaborative research with Bengt Samuelsson on leukotrienes. How Karolinska Institute researchers applied mass spectroscopy techniques to elucidate thestructure of prostaglandins. Sune Bergstrom and Bengt Samuelsson. Research on substances involved in platelet clotting. Research on the interaction of monosodium urate crystals and human neutrophils in platelets. Discovers tetraene compounds. Samuelsson lab. Funding and creativity.

Current Work and American Science
158

Research on the lipoxins and their role in regulating inflammation. Intracellular communication channels. Studying lipoxins in trout. Pharmacological potential of the research. Relationship between science and technology. Accidental discovery of trout lipoxins. Advice to young scientists. Serendipitous findings that have had implications for the study of inflammation. Pharmacology as a basic but neglected discipline. Interest in the structural elucidation of cellular messengers. Role of monocytes in inflammation. Examining aspirin-sensitive asthmatics with Bruce D. Levy. Long-term research projects. Juggling family life and career.

Family, Career, Nobel Laureates, and Comments from Lab Members
201

Serves as a mentor to entering graduate students. Invited to see Barbara McClintock accept her Nobel Prize. Nobel laureates as role models. Balancing family and career. Need for long-term funding in science. Lab members Jane F. Maddox, Joan Claria, and Boshkar Jacobodi.

Index
231

About the Interviewer

Neil D. Hathaway