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Oral history interview with David E. Levy

  • 1997-Jul-23 – 1997-Jul-25
  • 1997-Jul-29

David E. Levy was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of two children. His father was a chemist, his mother a classicist; both had been living in California but were assigned to Oak Ridge National Laboratory by the federal government, his father to work on the Manhattan Project, his mother for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Employees' families could attend an annual open house at the Laboratory, but otherwise David's father did not discuss his work. Even so, David remembers always having been interested in science; he had chemistry kits, he built rockets, he made his own chemicals for his dark room, and he observed the back-yard animals. In grade school once when pupils were asked to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up, David wrote about being a scientist, though he says he doubts that he would have known what that meant. David did not investigate colleges, but entered the University of Tennessee. Interested in psychology, he took premed classes but soon changed to biology; he had almost a minor in chemistry, which he also liked. There were no experimentation classes, though they did "practicals." After graduation, still unsure what he wanted to do, David took a job at the Laboratory in the Molecular Anatomy Program (MAP), a kind of independent project established by Norman Anderson. When MAP was closed down, David worked for a year in immunologist Alan Solomon's lab at the University of Tennessee's Memorial Research Center. He had already taken some seminars at the Oak Ridge Extension branch of the University of Tennessee, and he had written two papers. During this time he realized that he wanted to be a scientist, that he was excited by the confluence of chemistry and biology. Hence, graduate school. He was accepted at California Institute of Technology, where his father had studied, and began his research into immunology in William Dreyer's lab. Not long after he switched to Richard Lerner's lab at Scripps Research Institute, where he studied retroviruses. Upon finishing his PhD he accepted a postdoc at Rockefeller University offered by James Darnell, who was working on the development of organ systems. David remains an adjunct faculty member in the Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology there; and he has added an assistant professorship at New York University, the Sackler Institute for Graduate Biomedical Sciences, and in the School of Medicine Department of Pathology, where he is now an associate professor. He established his lab to continue his research into gene expression in the liver system, hoping to discover how it is that during development different genes get turned on in different tissues; for him that is the basic question. He devotes much of the end of the interview to comparing creative thinking, independence, and funding as found at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, and Scripps Research Institute; to comparing the Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences award with the National Institutes of Health grants; and to his conception of the ideal department or laboratory.

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