Kai Zinn

Born: July 24, 1955 | Berkeley, CA, US

Kai Zinn was born in Berkeley, California, but grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He attended the University of California, San Diego, where Paul Saltman inspired him to study chemistry. During his last year in college, Zinn worked on an independent study with Jack Kyte. After graduation Zinn had planned to travel, but broke his leg while at Yosemite and ended up at Kyte's lab for the summer. Kyte persuaded Zinn to attend Harvard for his PhD. There he worked on SV40 in Mark Ptashne's lab. Zinn joined Tom Maniatis's lab to work on interferon, then moved to Corey Goodman's lab. After finishing postdocs at Stanford and Berkeley, he accepted a job at California Institute of Technology, where he is now an associate professor.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0490
No. of pages: 113
Minutes: 426

Interview Sessions

14, 21, 27 September, 4 October 1994
The California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California

Abstract of Interview

Kai Zinn was born in Berkeley, California, but grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico. His father, now retired, was a chemist working on weapons research; his mother, who came to the United States from Germany after World War II, teaches German. Zinn had two brothers, but one was killed when he was fourteen. During high school, Zinn became an Explorer Scout and began to engage in outdoor activities like rafting, climbing, skiing, hiking. Zinn decided to attend the University of California at San Diego, where Paul Saltman inspired him to major in chemistry. During his last year in college, Zinn worked on an independent study with Jack Kyte. After graduation Zinn had planned to travel, but he fell at Yosemite National Park and broke his leg, so he ended up back at Kyte's lab for a month or so during that summer. Then he spent a year just traveling, visiting Nepal, Thailand, and the Virgin Islands. During his travels he picked up giardia and was ill for several months. Kyte helped persuade Zinn to go to Harvard for his PhD. There he worked on SV40 in Mark Ptashne's lab. While at Harvard, Zinn and Pamela J. Bjorkman, who was working on HLA (histocompatibility locus antigen) in Don Wiley's lab. met and married. Zinn next moved to Tom Maniatis's lab to work on interferon. After that, tired of interferon, Zinn moved to Corey Goodman's lab. Pamela stayed another year at Harvard, finally finishing the structure of HLA. After joining Zinn in California, Pamela discovered that she was pregnant with their son Leif. Zinn finished his postdocs at Stanford and Berkeley and then accepted a job at California Institute of Technology, where he is now an associate professor. He continues to publish, teach, read novels, work less then he would like on the bench, and spend time with his son, Leif, his daughter, Katya, and his wife.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1977 University of California, San Diego BA
1994 Harvard University PhD

Professional Experience

Harvard University

1984 to 1985
Postdoctoral Fellow

Stanford University

1985 to 1989
Postdoctoral Fellow

California Institute of Technology

1989 to 1995
Assistant Professor
1995 to 1999
Associate Professor

University of California, Berkeley

1985 to 1989
Postdoctoral Fellow

Honors

Year(s) Award
1978 to 1981

Predoctoral Fellowship, National Science Foundation

1985 to 1988

Postdoctoral Fellowship, Helen Hay Whitney Foundation

1990 to 1992

Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in Neuroscience

1990 to 1992

Basil O'Connor Starter Scholars Award, March of Dimes Foundation

1990 to 1993

McKnight Foundation Scholars Award

1990 to 1994

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

1994 to 1997

McKnight Foundation Investigator Award

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Family background. Growing up in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Zinn's son, Leif Zinn-Bjorkman--The low quality of secondary education in the United States—The declining number of American graduate students in biological research.

Undergraduate Years
12

Attends University of California at San Diego. Paul D. Saltman sparks Zinn's interest in biology. Majors in chemistry. Research project with Jack E. Kyte. Traveling in Asia after graduation.

Graduate Years
21

Studies molecular biology at Harvard University. Lab rotations at Harvard. His research on simian virus 40 in Mark S. Ptashne's lab. Ptashne 's style of lab management. Cloning the cDNA for interferon. Ptashne's talent for creating simple models to explain complex phenomena--Zinn's interest in gene induction. His discouragement with the complexity of gene induction leads him to switch from biochemistry to neurobiology. Cooperativity in gene regulation. Moves to the Tom Maniatis lab. Maniatis's style of lab management. Projects on interferon priming and 2-aminopurine that Zinn was involved in in the Maniatis lab. Using genomic footprinting to detect factors that interact with interferon in vivo--Develops the SP6 RNAase protection assay but is not credited with it in the scientific community at large. Wife Pamela J. Bjorkman's difficultiesdetermining the structure of histocompatibility locus antigen. Zinn andBjorkman's personal relationship. The births of their children.

Later Years
60

Zinn's interest in the labeled-pathways hypothesis developed in Corey S. Goodman's lab. Sequencing fasciclin I in grasshoppers and Drosophila. Importance of functional redundancy of molecules in the Drosophila nervous system. Fasciclin I-abl research. Goodman's research on motor axon pathways. California Institute of Technology (Caltech) offers positions to Zinn and Bjorkman. Administrative divisions at Caltech and their effect on Zinn's and Bjorkman's research. His research on olfactory receptors. Future of neurobiology and molecular biology. Funding and publishing. Ethical issues in genetic research.

Index
117

About the Interviewer

Steven J. Novak