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Oral history interview with Patrick Brennwald

  • 2000-May-22 – 2000-May-24

Patrick Brennwald is the youngest of three children, two boys and a girl. They lived first in Deerfield, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago; when Patrick was about ten, his parents divorced, and a few years later his mother remarried and the family moved to neighboring Northbrook, Illinois. He remembers a regular childhood, in which he and his siblings played usual games with other children in the area. He does not remember any particular scientific attraction, except that he and his brother used to help a friend catch snakes in a nearby field.

He attended Roman Catholic schools through junior high school, and then switched to the public high school. In sixth grade, in his Roman Catholic school, he was taught about evolution, perhaps where his interest in science began. In eighth grade he had a dynamic general science teacher who helped cement Brennwald’s interest. As a sophomore he was in honors chemistry and honors biology classes; his biology teacher bred owls and was an inspiration to Brennwald. In high school he had to come up with a project of his own, so he studied the sex determination mechanism of swordtail fish. He also worked through high school and college, first as a bagger and then as the supervisor of baggers at his local grocery store. The supervisory work was good preparation for managing a lab, he says.

Brennwald chose Carleton College, an excellent liberal arts college in Minnesota, because he wanted a small school with a broad education. He began in biology, but switched to chemistry. He loved the bench and realized that to be a scientist he had to go to graduate school. In addition to taking science classes he also studied philosophy; he spent time arranging parties, hiring bluesmen from Chicago; and he played ultimate Frisbee and softball.

Brennwald entered the University of Illinois for graduate school, working in Jo Ann Wise’s lab. Researching Schizosaccharomyces pombe he cloned four small RNA’s and had two first-author papers. He then took on a project that never quite went where he had hoped, and he ended up finishing his thesis in three weeks so as to go off to a postdoc.

Brennwald accepted a postdoc in Peter Novick’s lab at Yale University to research membrane transport. While at Yale he met the woman who is now his wife, Guendalina Rossi. At the time she was a student in another lab at Yale, studying another aspect of membrane transport. After his fourth year, Brennwald accepted an assistant professorship at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City. In his first year there he won the Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences award. He has just been promoted to associate professor. He teaches quite a lot, as he considers it important and he likes it. He sits on committees; he publishes; he writes grants, of course; he manages his lab; but he would like more time for the bench. He is continuing his work on gene family Rho.

As is usual with a busy person who loves his work, Brennwald feels that he could use a few more hours in the day, hours to spend with his family; hours to work at the bench; hours just to read and listen to music. All told, however, he believes he has so far met both his personal and his professional goals.

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