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Oral history interview with Rebecca W. Heald

  • 2005-Oct-17 – 2005-Oct-19

Rebecca W. Heald grew up in Greenville, a small college town in western Pennsylvania, where she was the youngest of three daughters. Her father was a chemistry professor at Thiel College in Greenville, and her mother was a chemistry instructor there as well. Heald's father's sabbatical took the family to New Zealand when Heald was four; she learned to read there and still loves to read. When she was in junior high school, her father took another sabbatical; this time the family went to Australia. In high school Heald had a very good teacher of calculus and one of English whom she found inspiring. In general she found her science instruction lacking, even in the advanced after-school class she took. She was editor of and photographer for the yearbook in her high school, which included eighth through twelfth grades. Their parents always expected that all three girls would not only go to college, but would also get advanced degrees. As it happens, all three ended up in science fields, Heald's sisters becoming doctors. Heald and her family considered a liberal arts education very important, so she attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where she majored in chemistry. The department was too small to provide lab work until her last year, when she did her first research project in Donna Brown's biochemistry lab. For two years she worked as a research associate for Sarah Hitchcock-DeGregori, helping her set up her lab in New Jersey, doing some real analysis, and publishing some papers. During her time in Brown's lab, Heald heard Bernardo Nadal-Ginard give a talk that influenced her to apply to Harvard University for graduate school. There she worked with Frank McKeon. Here she describes the graduate program at Harvard; McKeon's mentoring style; her work day during graduate school; and the process of writing her thesis. Then she talks about her doctoral work on the dynamics of the nuclear envelope during the cell cycle. She wanted to go to Europe for a different lifestyle and to be farther from her family, so she did her postdoctoral fellowship with Eric Karsenti at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, where her research focused on spindle formation. She describes Karsenti's mentoring style and the running of the EMBL. At that point Heald decided she wanted to be back in the United States, and on the West Coast, at a larger university, preferably a public school and one that was helpful and supportive of its faculty. She accepted a position at the University of California, Berkeley, and set up her lab. Here she discusses general issues of grant writing; women as principal investigators; gender issues in science; publishing; funding in general, as well as funding in Europe compared with funding in the United States; foreign students; and ethics in science. She talks about her role in the lab; her lab management style; her collaborations; and her teaching and administrative responsibilities. Heald concludes the interview with information about current and planned research on chromosome architecture and mitotic spindle assembly; practical applications of her work; and an explanation of the impact of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award on her work. She talks about what she likes most about being a principal investigator and describes a typical work day, finishing with her leisure activities.

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