Oral history interview with Karel Svoboda

  • 2004-Aug-19 – 2004-Aug-20
Portrait of Karel Svoboda
Karel Svoboda

Karel Svoboda was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, though he and his family immigrated to western Germany—the Ruhr Valley—during the Cold War era, in stages: first, his father, then his mother, Svoboda, and one sister, and then, finally, his youngest sister. Both of Svoboda's parents studied chemical engineering, though only his father received his degree since his mother focused on raising their children; later, his mother became a teacher in Germany and then, when the family immigrated, the United States as well. In Germany, Svoboda attended an alternative school that focused much more on the arts, like music, chorus, and theater, which he enjoyed tremendously. He always performed well in his mathematics and science classes, and developed prowess in chess.

Not wanting to stagger his education for time in Germany's military service, Svoboda applied to several universities in the United States and chose to matriculate at Cornell University. He capitalized on the work-study program while there, working in a number of research labs throughout his undergraduate career, initially as a computer programmer. The summers he spent at Bell Laboratories, where he worked in statistics and then in physics, and the semester he spent at the Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory, where he worked full-time in a physics laboratory focused on high-temperature critical superconductors, were significant in his scientific development. After applying to and being accepted at Harvard University for graduate studies Svoboda deferred for a year in order to teach physics in Katmandu, Nepal. At Harvard, he started his doctoral work with Howard Berg but then also worked with Steven M. Block at the Rowland Institute for the Sciences. His love of Bell Laboratories during his undergraduate years brought him back there for postdoctoral research on synapses with Winfred Denk and David Tank, and gave him the opportunity to take what became a very influential course on neural systems at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Svoboda left Bell for a position at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, studying biophysical neuroscience in neocortical circuits and their plasticity, with the intent of expanding his work to ensembles of neocortical circuits.

As the interview came to a close, Svoboda discuss some of the general issues associated with being a principal investigator and a scientist working in the United States, like the issue of patents; the origin of his ideas; the process of conducting scientific research; becoming familiar with the history of a particular field of research; competition and collaboration in science; setting the national scientific agenda; and the role of the scientist in educating the public about science. The interview concluded with his thoughts on the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award.

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Available upon request are 1 PDF transcript and 8 audio recording files.

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