Digital Collections

Oral history interview with William Braell

  • 1989-Mar-07

William Braell grew up in Palmyra, a small town in New York, the oldest of five children. His father was a general practitioner, his mother a housewife. He was always interested in science and always had chemistry sets. His physics and chemistry teacher was a good teacher and helped steer him to Massachusetts Institute of Technology instead of the local colleges his classmates mostly attended. Braell settled on biochemistry halfway through college and worked in Philip Robbins' biochemistry lab his senior year. At the time, not much was known about membranes, so for his PhD, Braell chose to stay at MIT because of its good membrane program. There he worked on spectrin and band 3 membrane proteins of red cells, eventually losing interest in spectrin and concentrating on band 3 in Harvey Lodish's lab. Braell did his postdoctoral work at Stanford University, in the lab of James Rothman, who had an "idea a minute." Arthur Kornberg's management at Stanford produced an electric atmosphere and many famous scientists. Braell goes on to detail some of the advances in sciences, particularly in membrane studies. He talks about the discovery of a signal on proteins; mannose-6-phosphate; Peter Walter and SRP; Randy Schekman and sec; and Stuart Kornfeld and lysosomal enzymes. Braell focuses on the biochemistry involved in the enzymology of membrane fusion. He explains some of the difficulties of the scientist: getting good students; isolating vesicles; competing with molecular biology and cloning. He likes having his small lab, as it is more efficient to supervise and easier to fund. He points out that his work has potential clinical implications: for the AIDS virus, for example, and for drug-protein interactions. He explains that since we don't know which proteins are involved or how they work, fusion could be temporary or contact cell-to-cell; thus understanding membrane fusion is very important. Braell hopes to emulate his ideal scientist, Eugene Kennedy, and be still on the bench many years from now.

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