Henrique von Gersdorff

Born: June 10, 1960 | Rio de Janeiro, BR
Photograph of Henrique P. Von Gersdorff

Henrique P. von Gersdorff

Henrique P. von Gersdorff was born in Brazil, but his father worked for the United Nations, so his family moved several times. He liked mathematics and resolved early to be a theoretical physicist. He also liked taking things apart to see how they worked. Von Gersdorff matriculated into the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, then pursued a master's degree in theoretical physics at Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Fisicas. Though he first received a PhD in physics, he soon found himself intrigued by the brain's workings. He entered Gary Matthews's neurophysiology laboratory at Stony Brook and earned a PhD in neurobiology. Von Gersdorff accepted an offer from the Vollum Institute in Portland, Oregon. He discusses the setting-up of his lab, funding, collaboration, and the workings of Oregon Health & Science University.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0622
No. of pages: 80
Minutes: 229

Interview Sessions

Robin Mejia
8-10 February 2006
The Vollum Institute, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Oregon

Abstract of Interview

Enrique P. von Gersdorff was born in Brazil, the son of a German father and Brazilian mother who had met in Angola. His father worked for the United Nations, so he and his family moved several times from one country to another, mostly in Africa, but also into Lebanon. When von Gersdorff was twelve his family moved back to Brazil. He attended American schools throughout these moves, so he learned English from an early age, though he spoke Portuguese at home. He attended an American high school until his last year, when he switched to a Brazilian one in order to prepare for the national graduation examination. He liked mathematics and resolved early to be a theoretical physicist. He also liked taking things apart to see how they worked. Von Gersdorff matriculated into the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, spending a year studying engineering before switching to physics. He then pursued a master's degree in theoretical physics at Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Fisicas (Brazilian Center for Physical Science) in Rio de Janeiro. From Brazil he moved to Batavia, Illinois, where he accepted a position at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, working with Larry McLerran. He returned to theoretical physics by entering a PhD program in Joseph Kapusta's laboratory at the University of Minnesota. Finishing in four years, he accepted a postdoctoral fellowship in high-energy nuclear physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York. He grew less satisfied with physics and found himself intrigued by the brain's workings. He took a summer course in electrophysiology taught by Gail Mandel, a professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and loved it. He entered Gary Matthews's neurophysiology laboratory at Stony Brook and earned a PhD in neurobiology. He met and married his wife in Long Island. He then took a second postdoctoral fellowship with Erwin Neher in Germany, where he began his current research in sensory neuroscience using electrophysiology to study synapses in the retina and the auditory brainstem. Neher encouraged him to go to Japan to work with the lab's main competitor for two months; this work resulted in a collaborative paper in Neuron. Von Gersdorff accepted an offer from the Vollum Institute in Portland, Oregon. He discusses the setting-up of his lab; his funding; the make-up of his lab; writing grants; and the impact of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award on his work. His wife's career, which was in hiatus while their two children were still young, was in teaching languages. Von Gersdorff returns the focus of the interview to his laboratory: his role there; more about his start-up package; his management and mentoring style; and writing journal articles. He discusses his travel commitments and his teaching and administrative duties; he explains his positions at the Vollum Institute and Oregon Health & Science University and how promotion works; he talks about collaboration in science, especially international collaboration; he describes a typical workday; and he discusses the issue of patents. The interview ends with an explanation of the wider context of von Gersdorff's work, potential practical applications of his research, and the direction of his future research.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1983 Federal University of Rio de Janeiro BSc Physics
1989 University of Minnesota PhD Physics
1995 State University of New York at Stony Brook PhD Neurobiology

Professional Experience

Fermi National Laboratory

1984 to 1985
Guest Scientist, High Energy Physics

University of Minnesota

1985 to 1989
Teaching and Research Assistant

Brookhaven National Laboratory

1989 to 1991
Research Associate, Nuclear Physics Department

State University of New York at Stony Brook

1992 to 1995
Postdoctoral Fellow, group of Prof. Gary Matthews

Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry

1996 to 1998
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Membrane Biophysics, group of Prof. Erwin Neher

The Vollum Institute

1998 to 2004
Assistant Scientist
2004
Scientist, joint appointment as Associate Professor with Department of Cell and Developmental Biology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1991

Grass Foundation Fellowship at Stanford University, Hopkins Marine Station

1991 to 1992

E.B. Turner Fellowship, SUNY Stony Brook

1993

Cold Spring Harbor summer course in ‘Imaging Structure and Function
in the Nervous System

1993 to 1995

National Research Service Award (NRSA) Fellowship

1996

Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship, Max-Planck Institut für Biophysikalische Chemie, Göttingen, Germany

1998

Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP) Long Term Fellowshi, Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, Germany

1999 to 2001

Alfred P. Sloan Research Scholar Award in Neuroscience

1999 to 2001

Pew Foundation for Biomedical Sciences Research Scholar Award

2000

Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE)

2004

“José del Castillo” Plenary Lecturer at the Annual Puerto Rico Neuroscience Conference, San Juan, Puerto Rico

2005 to 2006

Mercator Professor at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich
(visiting professor on Sabbatical leave in the Dept. of Neurobiology
(Prof. Benedikt Grothe); C4 level, Senior Professor of Neurobiology)

Table of Contents

Childhood and College in Brazil
1

Family background. Childhood experiences. Early schooling. Interests as a boy and young man. Parents. Attending an American high school in Brazil. Secondary education in Brazil. Influential teacher. Sister. Transfer during senior year to a private Brazilian high school. Brazilian education system. Parental expectations. Enters the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Graduate Degree and Postdoctoral Work in Physics
14

Reasons for studying physics. Brazilian politics during college years. Pursues a master's degree in theoretical physics at Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Fisicas (Brazilian Center for Physical Science) in Rio de Janeiro. Accepts a position at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. Works with Larry McLerran. Decision to pursue his Ph.D. in physics in Joseph Kapusta's laboratory at the University of Minnesota. Doctoral work in theoretical physics. Postdoctoral fellowship in high-energy nuclear physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Has a defining moment in a course taught by Gail Mandel.

Graduate Degree in Neurobiology, Postdoctoral Work, and the Vollum Institute
26

Reasons for transitioning from physics to neurobiology. Work on synaptic transmission in Gary Matthews's neurophysiology laboratory at State University of New York (SUNY) Stony Brook. Earns a Ph.D. in neurobiology at SUNY Stony Brook. Meets and marries wife. Postdoctoral fellowship with Erwin Neher. Current research in sensory neuroscience using electrophysiology to study synapses in the retina and the auditory brainstem. Process of conducting scientific research. Work in neurophysiology on auditory brainstem synapsesinErwin Neher's laboratory. Max Planck Institute. Qualities of a good scientist. Accepts a position at the Vollum Institute. Setting up lab. Funding history. Grant-writing process. Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. Wife's career. Children.

The Scientific Life
51

Role in laboratory. More on setting up lab. Writing journal articles. Mentoring style. Travel commitments. Administrative duties. Positions at the Vollum Institute and Oregon Health & Science University. Teaching responsibilities. Recruiting students. Collaboration in science. Typical workday. Competition inscience. Practical applications of research. Future research directions. Patents. Percentage of women as postdoctoral fellows and principal investigators. Promotion at the Vollum Institute. Advice to future scientists.

Index
78

About the Interviewer

Robin Mejia