Oral history interview with Henrique von Gersdorff

  • 2006-Feb-08 – 2006-Feb-10
Photograph of Henrique P. Von Gersdorff
Henrique P. von Gersdorff

Enrique P. von Gersdorff was born in Brazil, the son of a German father and Brazilian mother who had met in Angola. His father worked for the United Nations, so he and his family moved several times from one country to another, mostly in Africa, but also into Lebanon. When von Gersdorff was twelve his family moved back to Brazil. He attended American schools throughout these moves, so he learned English from an early age, though he spoke Portuguese at home. He attended an American high school until his last year, when he switched to a Brazilian one in order to prepare for the national graduation examination. He liked mathematics and resolved early to be a theoretical physicist. He also liked taking things apart to see how they worked. Von Gersdorff matriculated into the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, spending a year studying engineering before switching to physics. He then pursued a master's degree in theoretical physics at Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Fisicas (Brazilian Center for Physical Science) in Rio de Janeiro. From Brazil he moved to Batavia, Illinois, where he accepted a position at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, working with Larry McLerran. He returned to theoretical physics by entering a PhD program in Joseph Kapusta's laboratory at the University of Minnesota. Finishing in four years, he accepted a postdoctoral fellowship in high-energy nuclear physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York. He grew less satisfied with physics and found himself intrigued by the brain's workings. He took a summer course in electrophysiology taught by Gail Mandel, a professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and loved it. He entered Gary Matthews's neurophysiology laboratory at Stony Brook and earned a PhD in neurobiology. He met and married his wife in Long Island. He then took a second postdoctoral fellowship with Erwin Neher in Germany, where he began his current research in sensory neuroscience using electrophysiology to study synapses in the retina and the auditory brainstem. Neher encouraged him to go to Japan to work with the lab's main competitor for two months; this work resulted in a collaborative paper in Neuron. Von Gersdorff accepted an offer from the Vollum Institute in Portland, Oregon. He discusses the setting-up of his lab; his funding; the make-up of his lab; writing grants; and the impact of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award on his work. His wife's career, which was in hiatus while their two children were still young, was in teaching languages. Von Gersdorff returns the focus of the interview to his laboratory: his role there; more about his start-up package; his management and mentoring style; and writing journal articles. He discusses his travel commitments and his teaching and administrative duties; he explains his positions at the Vollum Institute and Oregon Health & Science University and how promotion works; he talks about collaboration in science, especially international collaboration; he describes a typical workday; and he discusses the issue of patents. The interview ends with an explanation of the wider context of von Gersdorff's work, potential practical applications of his research, and the direction of his future research.

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