Karel Svoboda

Born: December 30, 1965 | Prague, CS
Portrait of Karel Svoboda

Karel Svoboda

Karel Svoboda was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, but grew up in Germany. Wanting to avoid Germany's mandatory military service, Svoboda attended undergrad in the United States at Cornell University, where he worked in a number of research labs. After a year teaching in Nepal, he went to Harvard for graduate studies. 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 an influential course on neural systems at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Svoboda is now at 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.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0515
No. of pages: 83
Minutes: 350

Interview Sessions

William Van Benschoten
19-20 August 2004
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, New York

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. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1988 Cornell University BA Physics
1994 Harvard University PhD Biophysics

Professional Experience

Bell Laboratories

1994 to 1997
Postdoctorate in Neuroscience under D.W. Tank and W. Denk

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

1997 to 2003
Assistant/Associate Professor
2004 to 2006
Professor

State University of New York at Stony Brook

1997 to 2006
Affiliated Professor

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

2000 to 2006
Investigator
2006
Group Leader, Janelia Farm Research Campus

Honors

Year(s) Award
1994 to 1995

Society of General Physiology Scholar

1998 to 2002

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences Award

1998 to 2001

Klingenstein Award

1999

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

2003

Eppendorf and Science Prize for Neurobiology, Runner-Up

2004

Popular Science Brilliant 10

2004

Society for Neuroscience, AstraZeneca Young Investigator Award

Table of Contents

Childhood in Germany and College in Ithaca, New York
1

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.

Graduate School, Postdoctoral Work, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
24

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.

The Scientific Life
43

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.

Index
80

About the Interviewer

William Van Benschoten