Oral history interview with Marjorie A. Oettinger

  • 1997-Feb-10 – 1997-Feb-12

Marjorie A. Oettinger grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, the younger of two children. Her father was a professor at Harvard University; her mother taught biology at Harvard University; and her brother went to Harvard University as well. Her father's family was from Nürnberg; they left before World War II, lived in France for several years, and then came to America. Later, Oettinger visited Germany with her father, both finding it a distressing experience. She attended the Commonwealth School in Boston for her last two years of high school, though with her parents' influence on her interests, she was had difficulty deciding what she wanted to pursue as a career. Oettinger entered Harvard thinking she would major in physics, but when she read Gunther S. Stent's Molecular Genetics she decided on biology. She worked in the Kevin Struhl lab as an undergraduate and decided to pursue both a PhD and an MD Working under Struhl, she enjoyed the intellectual challenge and the camaraderie of lab work. While still an undergraduate, she trained high school students and undergraduates in the lab. After working in Struhl's lab for a year Oettinger entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s graduate program in the health sciences and technology (HST). She attended a David Baltimore lecture on allelic exclusion and immediately decided to enter the Baltimore lab. There she collaborated with David G. Schatz on the recombination of V(D)J in fibroblasts. She discovered that RAG-1 and RAG-2 synergistically activate V(D)J recombination, explaining why she was predisposed to accept the idea that nonidentical genes with related functions could be located near each other. Oettinger was uncertain about her future after graduate school. She finally decided not to pursue an M. D; instead she accepted a faculty position at Harvard. At this point in the interview, she reflected on the status and successes of her own lab; her collaboration with the Martin F. Gellert lab; collaboration and competition in science in general; differences between the David Baltimore lab and the Kevin Struhl lab; the importance of camaraderie in the lab; and funding. She concludes the interview by discussing her dismay over the increasing tendency to fund clinical rather than basic research. She feels that her criteria for choosing research projects must now include factors like fundability and probability of publications rather than just interest or importance to her. For this reason she feels that private and interim grants like the Pew Scholars award are wonderful. While teaching in China for a month, she found that scientists there were chosen for political reasons rather as a matter of merit, but that they had a great deal of the newest and best equipment. The interview ends with Oettinger's insights on aspects of child-bearing and -rearing and her view of the need for further research on human infertility.

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