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Oral history interview with Markus D. Meister

  • 1998-Nov-18
  • 1998-Nov-20
  • 1998-Nov-28

Markus D. Meister was born in Siegsdorf, Germany, a small town in Swabian Germany, in the foothills of the Alps. His father completed a PhD in physics, and when Markus was a young boy the family moved to the village of Ranco, Italy, near the small town of Ispra, where Markus's father worked for Euratom. Markus's mother was a housewife, staying at home with Markus and his younger brother. When Markus was seven the family moved to Brookhaven National Laboratory in upstate New York, where his father worked for two years. They lived on site in barracks that were still used to house visitors. Markus's father was able to take his children to work there, as he had not been able to do at Euratom. Markus particularly remembers walking through a particle accelerator tunnel and seeing the particle-bending magnets. As a child, Markus loved mathematics (his father was once accused of raising a "math animal"), and he considered studying math at university, but his father advised against it so going into physics was inevitable. After returning to Europe, Markus went to the "European School," a school that had been established for the children of Euratom employees, as they came from many different countries and spoke different languages. His curriculum in high school was the modern language/natural sciences curriculum; his languages were French and English and his science physics. Markus attended the University of Munich, in part because the political situation in Italy was chaotic; at the university he felt less challenged than he had expected to, and he decided to apply to schools in the United States. He was accepted into the PhD program at California Institute of Technology and spent his first year or so trying to catch up to his classmates. He was recruited into Edward C. Stone's cosmic-ray lab, a place he found exciting, and sometimes had the night shift at the jet propulsion lab. When NASA's budget was radically reduced Markus began to look around for an alternative; he decided to switch his course of study to biology. Howard C. Berg had given a colloquium about flagellar motion to physicists, a talk that really pushed Meister in that direction. He spent a summer in Berg's lab and was given permission to write his PhD thesis for Berg, as long as it dealt with the physics of biological systems. Meister accepted a postdoc at Stanford University in Denis Baylor's lab. From there the rigor of neuroscience attracted him, and he developed an interest in human visual perception. He considered a position at the University of California at San Diego but decided to accept Harvard's offer of an assistant professorship in the medical school. He now has tenure there and continues to enjoy his research; to look for funding; to publish; and to balance his work and his life with his wife, Elizabeth Anne Gibb, an architect, and his young daughter, Michela.

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