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Oral history interview with Kenneth A. Dill

  • 1989-Dec-12
  • 2009-Feb-09 – 2009-Feb-10

Ken A. Dill grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, one of two children. His father was an engineer for the telephone company and his mother a housewife. Having displayed an early interest in electronics, Dill attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in bioengineering. His master’s degree experience convinced him he wanted to do research so he applied for and received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and matriculated at the University of California, San Diego. Rotations there gave him an interest in questions about the origins of life. He settled in Bruno Zimm’s lab because he liked Zimm’s personality and his bio-related physics lab. Dill finished his PhD when he got reproducible results with the DNA separator he had designed and built. He went next to a postdoc at Stanford University, to Paul Flory’s lab to study micelles, hoping that their simpler structures would help him understand the more complex structures of proteins. Dill says that Flory “thought like molecules do.”

Dill accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Florida, where he worked on protein folding, molecular evolution, and the origins of life. Although he liked Florida, Dill left there for the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where there were many more groups doing similar work. At the beginning of Dill’s career Cyrus Levinthal declared that learning how sequence determines structure was the grand challenge in their field; Dill published his paper using polymer statistical mechanics to postulate that requirements for compactness limited proteins’ structures. Others questioned the use of statistical mechanics for thinking about proteins, but Dill developed simple exact models, especially the hydrophobic-polar model. He also developed funnel-shaped energy landscapes.

Dill moved to studying peptoids, or artificial molecules, collaborating with Ronald Zuckermann, to see if they could make the peptoids fold the way proteins do. They called these folding peptoids foldamers and believe that foldamers could have many important biological applications. Dill’s lab now works in three main project areas: computer modeling of structures; water; and nonequilibrium statistical mechanics. Dill’s work was originally funded by Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences but has since been supported by NIH. He still loves to work with pencil and paper.

Wanting to contribute to science policy, Dill cofounded, with Mary Barkley, the Bridging the Sciences Coalition, which is composed of fifteen basic research organizations. Dill discusses Representative John Porter’s help with legislation and procedures; the Coalition’s white papers; Congress’s responsiveness; and the importance of a large vision for science. He believes deep innovation is important for the future of science. He points out some other countries’ approaches to science policy and stresses the importance of public outreach. Dill shares thoughts on science education and grant reviewing. At the time of the second interview Dill had just been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and had yet to attend the inauguration.

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