The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.
Abstract of Interview
Karel Svoboda was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, though he and his family immigrated to western Germany—the Ruhr Valley—during the Cold War era, in stages: first, his father, then his mother, Svoboda, and one sister, and then, finally, his youngest sister. Both of Svoboda's parents studied chemical engineering, though only his father received his degree since his mother focused on raising their children; later, his mother became a teacher in Germany and then, when the family immigrated, the United States as well. In Germany, Svoboda attended an alternative school that focused much more on the arts, like music, chorus, and theater, which he enjoyed tremendously. He always performed well in his mathematics and science classes, and developed prowess in chess.
Not wanting to stagger his education for time in Germany's military service, Svoboda applied to several universities in the United States and chose to matriculate at Cornell University. He capitalized on the work-study program while there, working in a number of research labs throughout his undergraduate career, initially as a computer programmer. The summers he spent at Bell Laboratories, where he worked in statistics and then in physics, and the semester he spent at the Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory, where he worked full-time in a physics laboratory focused on high-temperature critical superconductors, were significant in his scientific development. After applying to and being accepted at Harvard University for graduate studies Svoboda deferred for a year in order to teach physics in Katmandu, Nepal. At Harvard, he started his doctoral work with Howard Berg but then also worked with Steven M. Block at the Rowland Institute for the Sciences. His love of Bell Laboratories during his undergraduate years brought him back there for postdoctoral research on synapses with Winfred Denk and David Tank, and gave him the opportunity to take what became a very influential course on neural systems at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Svoboda left Bell for a position at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, studying biophysical neuroscience in neocortical circuits and their plasticity, with the intent of expanding his work to ensembles of neocortical circuits.
As the interview came to a close, Svoboda discuss some of the general issues associated with being a principal investigator and a scientist working in the United States, like the issue of patents; the origin of his ideas; the process of conducting scientific research; becoming familiar with the history of a particular field of research; competition and collaboration in science; setting the national scientific agenda; and the role of the scientist in educating the public about science. The interview concluded with his thoughts on the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
State University of New York at Stony Brook
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
|1994 to 1995||
Society of General Physiology Scholar
|1998 to 2002||
Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences Award
|1998 to 2001||
Science Magazine, Runner-up, Breakthrough of the Year
|1999 to 2002||
Mathers Foundation Award
|1998 to 2001||
Whitaker Foundation Award
|2000 to 2006||
Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Assistant Investigator
|2002 to 2003||
McKnight Technological Innovations in Neuroscience Award
Eppendorf and Science Prize for Neurobiology, Runner-Up
Popular Science Brilliant 10
Society for Neuroscience, AstraZeneca Young Investigator Award
Table of Contents
Growing up in the Ruhr Valley region of Germany. Family background. Father. Mother. Siblings. Early schooling. Childhood interests and experiences. Interest in chess. Influential teacher. Secondary education in Germany. Religion. Parental expectations. Attends Cornell University. First research experience at Bell Laboratories. Semester at Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory. College experiences. Meets future wife. Teaches physics in Katmandu, Nepal. Enters biophysics graduate program at Harvard University.
Doctoral work with Howard Berg and Steven M. Block at the Rowland Institute for Sciences. Watt W. Webb laboratory at Cornell University. Postdoctoral fellowship at Bell Laboratories working with Winfred Denk and David Tank. Block's management style. Denk laboratory. Impact of a neural systems course at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Postdoctoral research on synapses at Bell Laboratories. Management styles of Winfred Denk and David Tank. Accepts a position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). Setting up lab. Current research in biophysical neuroscience on neocortical circuits and their plasticity. Future research on ensembles of neocortical circuits. Practical applications of work. Teaching responsibilities. Travel commitments.
Administrative duties. Funding history. Writing journal articles. Laboratory management style. Professional commitments. Balancing family and career. Wife's career. Leisure activities. Professional goals. Patents. Creativity in science. Competition and collaboration in science. Prioritizing research projects. National scientific agenda. Role of the scientist in educating the public about science. Privatization of scientific research. Gender. Percentage of women as graduate students and principal investigators. Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences.