Charles S. Zuker

Born: June 27, 1957 | Arica, CL

Charles S. Zuker was born and raised in Arica, Chile. He attended the Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, where he worked as a teaching assistant, learning about scientific research from a doctoral student. He attended MIT for graduate school, where he worked with Harvey F. Lodish using slime molds as a system for studying development and trying to characterize the genes turned on as the molds developed spores. He took a postdoctoral position at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on neurobiology. He then accepted a faculty position at the University of California, San Diego, and set up his research on Drosophila signaling pathways. He discusses competition in science, his gene research, the development of electrophysiology techniques, the NIH, and balancing life and work.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0569
No. of pages: 220
Minutes: 570

Interview Sessions

Neil D. Hathaway
20 December 1992, 30 January, 22 April 1993, 29 and 30 January 1994
University of California, San Diego, San Diego, California

Abstract of Interview

Charles S. Zuker was born and raised in Arica, Chile, on the border of Peru and Bolivia though the family moved to Santiago when Zuker was in the third year of his high school. His father was a prominent businessman, his mother a homemaker; Zuker was the second oldest of four siblings. He had a normal childhood playing with friends, though, from an early age, he was interested in biology and medicine but not in becoming a doctor. Although Jewish, he attended Jesuit schools since, from his parents' perspective, they provided the best education in Chile. The reign of Salvador Allende Gossens caused some perturbation within Chile and for Zuker's family but did not have much of an impact on Zuker's education; the prominence of electrophysiological work on the giant squid, a native of Chile, provided some access to well-trained scientists. He was tracked, from an early age, to study biology and so he entered the Universidad Católica de Valparaiso for his degree, knowing all the while that he wanted to pursue a doctoral degree in the United States. He worked as a teaching assistant as an undergraduate, learned about scientific research from a doctoral student at the university, and became handy at building his own equipment with little funds. He applied to and was accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for his graduate studies, during which time he had to develop rapidly his knowledge of the English language. After rotating through several labs, Zuker settled in to work with Harvey F. Lodish using slime molds as a system for studying development and trying to characterize the genes turned on as the molds developed spores. He moved on to a postdoctoral position at the University of California, Berkeley with Gerald M. Rubin, focusing more on neurobiological questions and, ultimately, research on photoreceptor cell function. Zuker used an RNA probe to isolate the rhodopsin gene in Drosophila; findings from this work published in Cell were done so simultaneously with competitors Joseph E. O'Tousa and William L. Pak. He then accepted a faculty position at the University of California, San Diego, and set up his research on Drosophila signaling pathways. Throughout the interview he talks about his role and reputation at San Diego, as well as the joint graduate program with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, basic research in underdeveloped countries, and the standards of graduate education. The interview concludes with Zuker's thoughts on the value of competition in science; his graduate students; balancing time in the lab with time with his family; the significance of the ninaA gene in explaining why cyclosporinA suppresses immune reactions; the development of electrophysiology techniques; the inability to do targeted mutagenesis on Drosophila; using the presence or absence of a protein as an assay to determine whether a gene is active or not; the process of breeding genetic stock in the laboratory; knocking out fly genes and attempting to rescue the function; and the utility of mutants in exploring the signaling pathway. He ends the interview with a discussion of how technology dominates modern biological research but cannot substitute for imagination and intuition; evolutionary conservation; learning the cause of retinitis pigmentosa; the quality of National Institutes of Health study sections; and his intense devotion to science.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1977 Universidad Católica de Valparaíso BSc Cell Biology
1983 Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD Molecular Biology

Professional Experience

University of California, Berkeley

1983 to 1986
Postdoctoral Fellow

University of California, San Diego

1986 to 1989
Assistant Professor, Department of Biology
1989 to 1992
Associate Professor, Department of Biology and Department of Neurosciences, School of Medicine
1989
Associate Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
1993
Professor, Department of Biology and Department of Neurosciences, School of Medicine
1993
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Honors

Year(s) Award
1979 to 1980

Whitaker Health Sciences Fund fellow, Massachusetts Institute of
Technology

1981 to 1982

Whitaker Health Sciences Fund fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1983

European Molecular Biology Organization fellow

1984

Sigma Xi

1984 to 1986

Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research fellow

1988 to 1991

McKnight Foundation Fund for Neuroscience Award

1988 to 1992

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

1988 to 1990

Alfred P. Sloan Award in Neurosciences

1989 to 1991

March of Dimes Basil O'Connor Award

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Grandparents immigrate to South America to escape anti-Semitism. Childhood in Arica, Chile. Siblings. Jewish community in Arica. Social turmoil during the Salvador Allendepresidency. Father's business career. Attends a Jesuit school. Decides to become a scientist. Childhood games. Meets with wife, Patricia Gioconda Ramolfo Zuker. Lack of guidance counseling in Chilean schools.

College
26

Chilean system of higher education. Academic performance. Enters the Universidad CatOlica de Valparaiso. Teaching undergraduates at University of California, San Diego (UCSD). High school course work. Teaching approach. Valparaisocurriculum. Influential professors. Undergraduate lab research. Learns to do research without expensive equipment. Plans to attend graduateschool in the United States. Chile's development as a center forelectrophysiology. Jerard Hurwitz's promotion of Chilean scientists.

Thoughts on Graduate Education and Teaching
46

Preference for doing tasks at the last minute. Decides not to return to Chile after his graduate training. Difficulty of justifying basic research in underdeveloped countries. Teaching. Reforming graduate education. Criteria for admitting graduate students into the UCSD Department of Biology. Joint graduate program of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the University of California,San Diego. Attends Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Value of competition in science. Preference for hard-driving students and postdocs.

Postdoctoral Research
99

Postdoc in the Gerald M. Rubin lab at the University of California, Berkeley. New transgenic technology. Decision in Rubin's lab to switch to neurobiological questions. Selecting a gene to study in Drosophila. RNA probe and the white gene. Using an RNA probe to isolate the rhodopsin gene. Decides to pursue research on photoreceptor cell function. Atmosphere in the Rubin lab. Rubin'smanagement style. Importance of working on significant areas of research. Unpublished findings on the white gene. Searching the neurobiology literature. Goal of identifying every molecule involved in Drosophila eye function. Dividing the territory with Rubin. Publishing findings on the rhodopsin gene simultaneously with competitors Joseph E. O'Tousa and William L. Pak. Advantages of Drosophila as a system. Homologies in molecular biology Research. What homologies mean from an evolutionary standpoint.

Faculty Years
136

Accepts a faculty position at University of California, San Diego. Setting up research on Drosophila signaling pathways. Emphasis on publishing a few major papers rather than a number of less significant ones. First students. Lab's reputation for being hard-driving. First postdocs. How principal investigatorslack time to do bench research themselves. Evolving managerial style. Undergraduates in the lab. Significance of the ninaA gene in explaining why cyclosporin A suppresses immune reactions. Current postdocs' research. Developing electrophysiology techniques. Awarded tenure. Funding for lab.

Research and Thoughts About Science
172

Fostering self-sufficiency in the lab. Inability to do targeted mutagenesis on Drosophila. Using presence or absence of a protein as an assay to determine whether a gene is active or not. Process of breeding genetic stock in the laboratory. Knocking out fly genes and attempting to rescue the function. Utility of mutants in exploring the signaling pathway. Question of what level of resolution a scientist wants on a problem. How the study of flies is relevant to the study of human genetics. How technology dominates modern biologicalresearch but cannot substitute for imagination and intuition. Evolutionary conservation. Value of basic science. Learning the cause of retinitis pigmentosa. Reasons for being a scientist. Allowing postdocs to take projects with them when they leave the lab. Quality of National Institutes of Health study sections. Serving on study sections. Scientific journals. Intense devotion to science and the changes in his attitude over the past year.

Index
216

About the Interviewer

Neil D. Hathaway