Digital Collections

Oral history interview with Susan J. Birren

  • 2004-Aug-02 – 2004-Aug-04

Susan J. Birren spent time in New York and Washington, D.C., though grew up mostly in Kentfield, California, just north of San Francisco, the second youngest of four siblings. Her father was a lawyer, and then an administrative law judge, for the National Labor Relations Board; her mother studied art and worked as a designer in the garment industry until she had children, after which she became a professional artist. Her family did much together—camping, sailing, hiking, and general playing—and Birren was an avid reader and enjoyed exploring nature. Academics came easily and she had a clear interest in science and mathematics throughout her early schooling; a female chemistry teacher in high school, with a master’s degree, proved somewhat influential.

Birren applied to two schools only for college and undertook her undergraduate career at the University of California, Berkeley. Initially interested in studying mathematics, she decided to switch to biochemistry for her major and had the opportunity to work with Edward E. Penhoet, who later became one of the founders of Chiron Corporation. She worked on isolating opsins from a halobacterium, a high-salt bacterium, but, more importantly, she fell in love with lab life and lab culture and benefitted from being mentored by Penhoet. From Berkeley she moved on to the University of California, Los Angeles working with Harvey R. Hirschman on the transcriptional regulation of the metallothionein gene; while there, Kathryn L. Calame also served as a mentor. Birren decided to remain in California for her postdoctoral work, moving into the lab of David J. Anderson at the California Institute of Technology, studying the differentiation of neural crest cells. From there she went on to a faculty position at Brandeis University looking at the functional development of neurons.

During the interview Birren was candid about being a working mother and dealing with a chronic medical condition. At the end of the interview she discusses gender issues in science; administrative duties; the grant-writing process; balancing career and family; the issue of patents; creativity in science; and the role of serendipity in her work. The interview concludes with thoughts on teaching the history of science; the process of conducting scientific research; setting the national scientific agenda; the role of the scientist in educating the public; and the role of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences on her work.

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