Oral history interview with Diane M. Papazian

  • 1996-Jan-16
  • 1996-Jan-25
  • 1996-Feb-07

Diane M. Papazian spent her early years in Detroit, Michigan, the youngest of three children. Her father was an insurance salesman and administrator, her mother a housewife. She exhibited an early interest in science, thinking she would become an astronaut. When she was about eight or nine the family moved to Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, where Papazian attended a school that tracked students, so she was able to be in advanced classes of all subjects; she found the science instruction particularly excellent. She decided to attend the University of Michigan, though had been unable to choose between biology and chemistry and had thought that biochemistry would combine the two, but Michigan required her to major in chemistry. Her organic chemistry class had students identify a dozen compounds without using modern methods; figuring out how to go about that all on her own Papazian found enthralling. Her first experience in the lab was less successful than hoped, but she loved lab work. She noticed that there were no women on the faculty at Michigan, but she was undeterred. Still wanting to be a biochemist Papazian entered graduate school at Harvard University, where she discovered neurobiology. She worked in Stanley M. Goldin's lab; there she reconstituted and purified two types of calcium transporting ATPases as a thesis project. She found the learning environment at Harvard very stimulating. Papazian accepted a postdoc at the Lily Y. and Yuh Nung Jan lab at the University of California, San Francisco; there she worked on cloning the Shaker gene. Walking along the chromosome presented technical problems, exacerbating the tension caused by competition with other labs to clone the Shaker gene first. She describes the Jans's adventurous approach to science, which leads into her belief that one should follow his or her intellectual interests rather than being confined to one area of study. She continues with a description of the differences between the Jan and Goldin labs. Soon after, she accepted a position at University of California, Los Angeles because she would find there people whose work could both complement and supplement hers. She particularly had in mind a collaboration with Francisco Bezanilla, one in which she could demonstrate her innovative biochemical approach to the potassium channel field. She organized her lab and began research on the biogenesis of the channel, attacking the question of why the Shaker superfamily contains some channels that are not voltage-dependent, and identified the charged residues of the S4 and S2 sequences as contributors to the voltage sensor. She discusses postdocs and students in her lab and her management style; Bezanilla's inspiring enthusiasm for science; the challenges of teaching new material; the impact of early retirement policies on faculty teaching loads; and the pressure to secure grant money. When asked about other possible careers she mentions law, owning a bakery, teaching, and writing; she does not mention dancing, though she and her husband met dancing and continue to enjoy it. She concludes the interview discussing her belief that neurobiology must become more interdisciplinary; her view of funding disparities; her strategies for keeping abreast of the field; her impression of the atmosphere in the UCLA Department of Physiology; her philosophy of nature; and her recognition of the benefits of the Pew scholarship and her regard for the goals of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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