Digital Collections

Oral history interview with Pamela Jane Bjorkman

  • 1990-Mar-06

Pamela Bjorkman grew up in Parkrose, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. Her father was an accountant for a tractor company, and her mother, who had taught English in Bermuda, was a housewife. Bjorkman became interested in science when she took chemistry and physics in high school. She attended Willamette University for a year but then transferred to University of Oregon, as she wanted to be able to pay her own way. While in college she worked in the labs of Larry Church at Reed College and O. Hayes Griffith at the University of Oregon.

Interested in why organisms behave as they do, Bjorkman chose Harvard University’s PhD program as the best place to learn biochemistry and molecular biology. She found Don Wiley’s lab exciting and fast-paced and became interested in using X-ray crystallography to understand how major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins are involved in the immune response to pathogens. Then she had a long period of trying to solve the crystal structure of a MHC protein; she feels this immersion gave her a thorough knowledge of crystallography. Still finishing the crystal structure, she accepted a postdoc at Stanford University in Mark Davis’s lab, where she worked producing a T cell receptor that recognizes the MHC protein she studied in graduate school.

Crystallography again in fashion, Bjorkman was recruited to California Institute of Technology. She finds being an assistant professor keeps her away from the bench more than she would like; she must write grants, teach, advise students, and sit on committees. In addition, she and her husband, whom she married while at Stanford and who is a neurobiologist also at Caltech, share the care of their toddler son and other domestic duties.

Bjorkman discusses the difficulties of working while pregnant; of finding two jobs in the same city if not in the same institution and then setting up two new labs while caring for a very young child; of working out duty-sharing arrangements; of the effects on careers of having children. She says she hopes that in ten years she will know how molecules that are involved in immune response function and how T cells interact with their target cells. She feels this will help her answer many immunological questions.

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