Oral history interview with Helen M. Berman

  • 2000-Feb-11

Helen M. Berman begins the interview by discussing her scientific education and how a laboratory internship with Barbara W. Low, while studying at Barnard University, influenced her decision to go into the field of crystallography. After receiving her doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, Berman went to work for the Fox Chase Cancer Center, where she researched nucleic acid crystallography and drug nucleic acid interactions. Twenty years later, she moved to Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and expanded her program to include protein crystallography. Since Berman first entered the field, she was convinced that archiving protein structures and studying their sequences would allow researchers to predict future protein structures, instead of relying on theoretical calculations. In the interview, Berman describes how she shared her views with the leading crystallographer of the period at the 1971 protein crystallography conference at Cold Spring Harbor. Soon after, she began working with Walter C. Hamilton and Edgar Meyer to establish the Protein Databank [PDB] at Brookhaven National Laboratory. At the same time, Crysnet was developed to enable researchers to work on big calculations remotely, from another computer. Berman was the program's prototype user. Next, Berman talks about the problems that the PDB had in getting researchers to submit their structures. A controversy developed because scientists were afraid of losing control of their work—many did not want to share information. To deal with the different opinions on data deposition, guidelines were developed and agreed to by a consensus. Berman also goes into the crystallographic community's dissatisfaction with the PDB in the late 1980s and early 1990s. To improve its efficiency, funding agencies decided to have researchers compete for funding with different grant proposals. Brookhaven hired Berman's old friend and colleague Joel L. Sussman to stabilize the PDB. He ended up, however, competing against Berman twice for funding and control of the database. Sussman won the first competition, but in 1998, Berman became head of the PDB, which moved from Brookhaven to Rutgers. Berman now successfully manages the database and applies the most modern technology to keep it running smoothly.

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