Lubert Stryer

Born: March 2, 1938 | Tientsin, CN
Portrait of Lubert Stryer

Lubert Stryer

Lubert Stryer was born in China, where his family lived until he was about ten. During World War II, his family escaped notice of the Japanese, and after the war obtained visas for the United States. In high school, Stryer planned to become a lawyer, but the head of the science department asked him to do some research on bioluminescent bacteria, and Lubert was hooked. By his last year of medical school at Harvard, Stryer knew that he did not want to practice medicine and began a career in research. He worked with Nobel Prize winners in Cambridge, then Stanford, and finally gained a professorship at Yale before returning to Stanford. Using the notes he developed for his class in biochemistry Stryer wrote his now-canonical textbook.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0631
No. of pages: 82
Minutes: 278

Interview Sessions

David J. Caruso
3-4 December 2008
Stanford University, Stanford, California

Abstract of Interview

Lubert Stryer was born in Tientsin (now Tianjin), China.  He and his family lived in Shanghai until he was about ten.  Lubert’s father had come to China from Germany, his mother from Russia, in order to escape the turmoil in Europe, but the Japanese invaded and interned Shanghai’s British, Canadian, and American citizens.  Somehow the Stryers escaped notice and, after the war, obtained visas for the United States, moving to Forest Hills, New York.  Lubert had always loved school, and he found his high school to be of excellent quality.  As a youngster he loved baseball and chemistry; he founded his own newspaper, The Daily Bugle, and he became interested in photography.

Stryer was fascinated by history when he was in high school, and he planned to become a lawyer, but the head of the science department asked him to do some research on bioluminescent bacteria, and Lubert was “hooked.”  He applied to Harvard University and the University of Chicago for college, knowing that he would need a good scholarship; he accepted the offer from Chicago, matriculating at sixteen.  With medical school as his goal and majoring in physiology, he worked at Argonne National Laboratories in the summers, becoming interested in photodynamic action.  Here began his lifelong passion, “light and life.”  The intellectual experience in college was intense, and friendships abounded.  It was also an exciting time of exploding knowledge in science, with DNA being discovered, oscilloscopes replacing smoke drums.  Always eager for the next experience or challenge, Lubert finished college in three years, accepted an offer from Harvard, and entered medical school at the age of nineteen.

At Harvard Lubert again found himself among the brightest scientific minds of his generation; he called upon his friendships to establish a relationship with Elkan Blout, who remained his mentor throughout his school years.  Blout directed Lubert to Children’s Cancer Research Foundation, where he worked on polypeptides conformation and learned spectroscopy.  When he was in his last year of medical school, Stryer knew that he did not want to practice medicine and forwent internship for an immediate postdoctoral fellowship.  In Carolyn Cohen’s laboratory, he learned x-ray diffraction, drank much coffee, and engaged in  many wide-ranging discussions with labmates.  During this year he also was tutored in physics and mathematics by Edward Purcell and began learning computing; having married his Chicagoan fiancée, Andrea, when he was twenty, for which he needed his parents’ consent, he also fathered his first child.  At that point Blout arranged for Stryer to study with Sir John Kendrew at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England.  Again he worked among and with Nobel Prize-winning scientists:  Kendrew, Crick, Watson, Perutz, Sanger.

After about a year Arthur Kornberg asked Kendrew for recommendations, and Stryer’s next stop was Stanford.  Teaching protein structure and function, he found wonderful science and scientists at Stanford too.  Stryer believes that he flourished during the “golden age” of science, which began to change after the Vietnam War.

After a few years at Stanford Lubert, now an associate professor, wanted to change his research area to visual excitation, so when Yale offered him a full professorship and all the lab space he wanted, he and his wife and now two sons moved east.  Using the notes he developed for his class in biochemistry Stryer wrote his now-canonical textbook.  He feels that although he did not publish so much while at Yale his work there set the stage for his later discoveries in amplification in vision.

Stanford offered him chairmanship of the new department of structural biology, and back they all went to California.  There Stryer wrote the next edition of his textbook.  He gave up his chairmanship after a couple of years because he found it “not fun.”  This relinquishment allowed him to become more proficient on (very early) computers, even writing his own programs.  Most importantly, he enjoyed a “magic moment” when he discovered that a single photon can lead to the activation of five-hundred molecules of transducin.

As Stryer has gradually disentangled himself from his university work his position in the scientific community has evolved.  He sees himself creating new ways to do interesting things outside of the lab.  He became an advisor for the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences, helping to promote new young scientists.  He has been involved in several companies in private industry, a result of his interest in olfaction and vision; he has established and led BIO2010 to study the future of undergraduate biology education, and helped implement those ideas at Stanford; he remains interested in human evolution, continuing several projects, studying just for the sake of learning.

Lubert Stryer’s list of honors, culminating in the National Medal of Science, is extensive and impressive.  His own description of his science, “light and life,” best describes Stryer himself.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1957 University of Chicago BS Physiology
1961 Harvard University MD Medicine

Professional Experience

Harvard University

1961 to 1962
Research Fellow, Physics

MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

1962 to 1963
Visiting Investigator

Stanford University School of Medicine

1963 to 1969
Assistant and Associate Professor, Biochemistry
1976 to 1979
Chair, Department of Structural Biology
1976 to 2004
Winzer Professor of Cell Biology
2004 to 2010
Winzer Professor of Cell Biology, Emeritus

Yale University

1969 to 1976
Professor, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry

Affymax Research Institute

1989 to 1990
President and Scientific Director

Affymetrix, Inc.

1993 to 2010
Chairman, Scientific Advisory Board

Senomyx, Inc.

1996 to 2001
Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer
2001 to 2008
Chairman, Scientific Advisory Board

Honors

Year(s) Award
1961 to 1964

Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship

1970

American Chemical Society Award in Biological Chemistry (Eli Lilly Award)

1975

Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

1984

Member of the National Academy of Sciences

1987

National Lecturer for the Biophysical Society

1992

American Association for the Advancement of Science Newcomb Cleveland Prize

1992

Honorary Doctor of Science degree, University of Chicago

1993

Distinguished Inventors Award, Intellectual Property Owners' Association

2002

Molecular Bioanalytics Award, German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

2006

European Inventor of the Year Award

2006

Member of the American Philosophical Society

2006

National Medal of Science

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Shanghai during Japanese occupation. Private school. Parents' backgrounds and occupations. Early love of learning, especially science (chemistry) and history.

Fleeing China
7

Arrival in New York. Forest Hills High School; successful students and high-quality education. Loves history, wants to be lawyer. More science. Work in Paul Brandwein's lab on bioluminescence. Goodbye, law; hello, science.

College Years
13

Matriculates at University of Chicago at age 16; majors in physiology. Works at Argonne National Laboratory during summers. Worked on photodynamic action; led to "light and life". Finishes in three years.

Medical School Years
20

Enters Harvard University to study medicine, majoring in biology, at age of 19. At 20 receives parental permission to marry fiancée Andrea from Chicago. Friendship with Goldblatt family leads to Elkan Blout, his first mentor. Sees big science in action at Blout's lab at Polaroid. Works at Children's Cancer Research Foundation.

Post-Medical School Years
31

Avoids internship, instead going into research. Postdoc in Carolyn Cohen's lab. Learns computing, x-ray diffraction. Tutored in physics and mathematics by Edward Purcell. First child born. On to Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England, to Sir John Kendrew's lab, for one year. Works with exciting, prize-winning scientists.

Stanford Years
38

Teaches protein structure and function. Finds colleagues congenial and excellent scientists. Finds "golden age" of science changing. Second child born. Becomes associate professor with tenure. Thinks about new areas of interest, including textbook.

Yale Years
47

Full professorship. Changes area of interest to visual excitation. Helps develop new department of biophysics. Writes first edition of textbook, using notes for class he taught. Work at Yale sets stage for amplification in vision discoveries.

Back to Stanford
61

Accepts chairmanship of new department of structural biology. Writes second edition of textbook. More computer work, writing own programs. Amplification work provides "magic moment. " Elected to National Academy of Science. Leads BIO2010. Involves himself in private industry. Joins Pew Advisory Committee.

Emeritus Faculty
68

Finds position evolving. Still interested in olfaction and vision. Still involved with private industry. Studying and learning for own sake. Receives National Medal of Science. Discusses mandatory retirement age for scientists.

About the Interviewer

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.