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Oral history interview with Gary Karpen

  • 2000-Aug-15 – 2000-Aug-17

Gary Karpen was born in New York City but grew up in Norwood, New Jersey. His older sister became an astrophysicist and his younger brother an MD/PhD who does both research and clinical work. His father joined the army at the age of 17 to fight in World War II, coming home severely wounded. Forgoing the GI Bill, Gary's father did not go to college but went into his father's construction business. When he was in his 50's Mr. Karpen sold his business, got an education degree, and became a teacher of high-school shop. Karpen's mother was a college graduate and eventually got a PhD in library science. Karpen's grandparents were Orthodox Jews, so his family was observant, though tending more toward Conservative Judaism, and being Jewish was very important in Karpen's youth. In junior high school Karpen had an excellent biology teacher who fired his interest in that subject. In high school Karpen also liked French and English, particularly enjoying reading classical science fiction. He says he procrastinated and did not work especially hard, but he was nevertheless assigned to the honors track. Because Brandeis was strong in pre-med and because Karpen loved biology, he decided to apply for early acceptance, successfully, as it turned out. There he discovered that the "tinkering" he and his father had done together over the years resolved into a love of solving puzzles, of figuring out how things worked or fit together, and he knew he did not want to practice medicine but to be a researcher. From Brandeis he went to the University of Washington to be a technician in Gerold Schubiger's lab. He spent three years in this position before crossing the bridge to the genetics department for graduate school, where he worked in Larry Sandler's and Charles Laird's labs, transforming ribosomal genes into flies. He also met and married Monica Medina, and they had their first child during these years. From Seattle the Karpens went to Washington, D.C., where Karpen had accepted a postdoc at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, working on centromeres in Allan Spradling's lab. Another child, a daughter, made her appearance during this time. After his postdoc, Karpen took a position at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. There he established his own lab, and he teaches the occasional course. He continues quite happily to work on heterochromatin chromosome inheritance and centromere identity; to explore his Jewish heritage; to seek funding; to publish his work; to mentor the people in his lab; and to hang out with his children.

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