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Oral history interview with Helen Donis-Keller

  • 2013-May-27

Oral history interview with Helen Donis-Keller

  • 2013-May-27

Helen Donis-Keller was born in Madison, Wisconsin, but grew up in Elkhart, Indiana. As a child, she loved art, so she pursued a degree in graphic design and photography at The University of Cincinnati. She spent two work sections at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri, designing stationery and gift wrap. In 1970 Donis-Keller and her then-husband moved to Canada where they stayed for five years for her husband to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War. She got a job as a graphic designer at Lakehead University and started taking college classes, including chemistry and biology, for fun. She became captivated by science and quit her job to become a technician doing histology. Donis-Keller soon realized that if she wanted to work on her own projects, she needed to have a Ph.D. to do so. She applied to several programs and selected Harvard University after interviewing with Mark Ptashne and Walter “Wally” Gilbert. At Harvard, Donis-Keller worked in Gilbert’s lab on the RNA sequencing method using an enzyme approach. Upon graduation, she briefly worked with Bernard N. Fields on reovirus before accepting an offer at Wally’s new company, Biogen, Inc. As the company started to grow, they made a lot of proposals. Two of Biogen’s projects were interferon and human serum albumin. After a couple of years at Biogen, Donis-Keller thought she needed a break. She was encouraged to join Collaborative Research, which she did. There she worked on project development, including developing markers and creating a human linkage map. By 1985, they had started collaborating with Lap-Chee Tsui and Ray White, who both had cystic fibrosis families. In August 1985, they discovered a LOD score of 3.22—very high—on one marker. They continued to develop more markers and hired Philip Palmer Green to develop the algorithms they needed. Donis-Keller started working on a paper that they submitted to Cell in August 1987. However, after the results came out and the fanfare died down, the project was canceled. She accepted a job at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where she continued to work on genetic mapping. During a sabbatical, she took some art classes and decided when the sabbatical was over, she wanted to get a master’s in fine arts. She closed down her lab and came back to Boston, Massachusetts, to move in with her new husband, Boris Magasanik, and attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. After graduation, Donis-Keller joined the faculty of Olin College of Engineering as a professor of biology and art. She talks about her artwork, including photography of Iceland and Death Valley, her teaching, and the importance of acknowledging women in science.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 92 pages
  • 2 h 18 m 12 s
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewer

Mark Jones holds a PhD in history, philosophy, and social studies of science from the University of California, San Diego. He is the former director of research at the Life Sciences Foundation and executive editor of LSF Magazine. He has served in numerous academic posts, and is completing the definitive account of the origins of the biotechnology industry, entitled Translating Life, for Harvard University Press.

Institutional location

Oral history number 0999

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Interviewee biographical information

  • 1947
  • Madison, Wisconsin, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1969 University of Cincinnati. School of Architecture and Interior Design B.A. Graphic Design
1973 Lakehead University B.S. Natural Science
1975 Lakehead University Honours B.S. Natural Sciences in Biology
1979 Harvard University Ph.D. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
1995 Lakehead University Doctor of Science
2001 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. School M.F.A. Studio Art

Professional Experience

Biogen, Inc.

  • 1980 to 1982 Assistant Research Director of Molecular Biology

Collaborative Research, Inc.

  • 1983 to 1989 Director, Department of Human Genetics

Washington University (Saint Louis, Mo.). School of Medicine

  • 1989 to 1992 Professor of Genetics, Department of Genetics
  • 1989 to 2001 Joint appointment, Professor of Genetics in Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry
  • 1992 to 2001 Professor of Surgery and Director, Division of Human Molecular Genetics, Department of Surgery

Washington University (Saint Louis, Mo.). School of Medicine. Library

  • 1992 to 2001 Joint appointment, Professor of Genetics, Department of Genetics

SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals

  • 1994 to 1997 Genomics Advisory Board Member

Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

  • 2001 to present Professor of Biology and Art
  • 2012 to present Michael E. Moody Professor


Year(s) Award
1973 Lieutenat Governor's Medal (Canada), Lakehead University
1975 Dean of Science Medal, Lakehead University
1979 Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship
1994 Marion Spencer Fay National Board Award of the Medical College of Pennsylvania, 32nd Annual Award
1995 Doctor of Science Degree (Honoris Causa), Lakehead University

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The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

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