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Oral history interview with Charles N. Serhan

  • 1993-Jul-06
  • 1993-Jul-08
  • 1993-Jul-09
  • 1993-Jul-12
  • 1994-Jun-27
  • 1994-Jul-05

Charles N. Serhan grew up in Brooklyn, New York, the older of two children. His father, who retired early from shipping work, is of Lebanese descent, his mother Italian. When he was in junior high school, Serhan learned to play the vibraphone and played professionally for a year before college. Although he loved music and fantasized a musical career, he did not like the life of a musician. He had always liked and done well in science, so he decided to enter university, but he continued to play the vibraphone as well. He chose to specialize in biomedical science.
Serhan did his undergraduate work at State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he studied biochemistry and immunohistochemistry, doing research on cell separation. Michael Heidelberger persuaded Serhan to go to graduate school at New York University and to work in the lab of Gerald Weissmann. Serhan spent a summer working with Weissmann at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. Weissmann's interest in the role of neutrophils in inflammation led to Serhan's doctoral research on neutrophil remodeling.
After finishing his PhD Serhan took a visiting scientist position at the Karolinska Institute. There he met his future wife, Birgitta Schmidt, who now has a career as a dermatopathologist also at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Serhan was influenced by mentors Helen M. Korchak, Manfred Karnovsky, and Aaron J. Marcus and by reading The Art of Scientific Investigation and Men Like Gods. Michael Heidelberger gave him advice on how to be a good scientist and on the need to conduct both safe and risky experiments. He collaborated with James L. Madarain studying white cells' interaction with epithelial cells: he was trying to accelerate the healing of wounds. A family illness gave Serhan a more personal appreciation for the value of research and increased his desire to produce something with a clinical application. Serhan's research on the interaction of monosodium urate crystals and human neutrophils in platelets led to the discovery of tetraene compounds; he also continued his research on the lipoxinsand their role in regulating inflammation and on intracellular communication channels. He studied lipoxins in trout and describes the accidental discovery of trout lipoxin, discussing the pharmacological potential of the research and the relationship between science and technology.
The interview ends with a discussion of how Serhan advises young scientists to pursue their own interests, citing serendipitous findings that have had implications for the study of inflammation; how he believes that the funding of American science inhibits creativity; and that pharmacology is a basic but neglected discipline. Serhan talks more about his interest in the structural elucidation of cellular messengers; the biological action of lipoxins; the role of monocytes in inflammation; and his examinations of aspirin-sensitive asthmatics with Bruce Levy. Serhan says that today's scientists lead pressured lives, and it is a mistake to evaluate scientists by the number of grants they receive or by the size of their laboratories. He feels the need to tackle long-term research projects, projects that require long-term funding.
Serhan was invited to see Barbara McClintock accept her Nobel Prize, and he talks about Nobel Prize winners as role models. He mentions his lab members Jane Maddox, Joan Claria, and Boshkar Jacobodi; he encourages minority students to become scientists. Serhan concludes his interview with a discussion of the difficulty of balancing family life and work life, especially in a two-career family.

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