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Samuel Pfaff

  • Born: April 11, 1961, Rochester, MN, USA

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0620
Interview Dates: 3, 4, and 5 October 2005
Location: Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA, USA
Interviewer: Robin Mejia
No. of pages: 100
Minutes: 353
Sponsor: The Pew Charitable Trusts
The Pew Charitable Trusts

  Abstract of Interview

Samuel L. Pfaff was born and raised in Rochester, Minnesota, a city of, at the time, fifty- to sixty thousand people composed, primarily, of physicians and other Mayo Clinic staff and engineers at International Business Machines (IBM).  Dairy farming was a major industry in the area surrounding the city; Pfaff’s parents were both raised on farms.  His father received a baccalaureate degree in chemistry and went to work for the Mayo Clinic, first as a research technician, but then later on as an administrator of laboratories; his mother was a housewife and then an accountant.  Pfaff and his younger brother spent most summers on their grandparents’ farm (his brother chose to pursue dairy farming as his vocation) working hard and finding the work very rewarding.  He received a public education and felt fortunate to have a fifth grade teacher who recommended him for accelerated academic work and to have a high school biology teacher who suggested he volunteer in a Mayo Clinic laboratory, subsequently contacting Dr. Peter Dyck at Mayo on Pfaff’s behalf.  In Dyck’s neurology lab, Pfaff contributed to Dr. Jeff Yao’s research on Wallerian degeneration (the degeneration of nerves after injury); he presented his work at local, state, and, finally, National Science Fairs and because of it also won awards from the U.S. Navy and the state of West Virginia to attend a navy-themed camp in Hawaii and a science camp in West Virginia.

He decided to attend a local college for his undergraduate degree, matriculating at Carleton College—a liberal arts school about forty minutes from his home.  Dr. Ross Shoger’s class in developmental biology proved quite influential and Pfaff chose to pursue a doctoral degree in the sciences over a medical degree.  He entered the University of California system for graduate school, studying at Berkeley with Peter Duesberg whose lab focused on how oncogenes function—working with retroviruses, RNA viruses, that could be grown on cells (mostly on chick embryos) which then led to a transformation of the cells and overproliferation—though this was slightly before Duesberg’s public claims that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was not the cause of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).  From Berkeley Pfaff went on to undertake a postdoctoral fellowship in developmental molecular biology with William Taylor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and then another with Thomas M. Jessell at Columbia University in New York, New York, working on molecular neurobiology and gene regulation of motor neuron development.  At the end of his postdoc he moved on to a position at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, researching gene combinations for regulation of motor neurons in spinal cord development.

At the end of the interview Pfaff discusses setting up his laboratory; the impact of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award on his work; the role of the scientist in educating the public about science; and his lab management style.  He concludes the interview with his thoughts on balancing family life and his career; funding scientific research; educating the public about science; the relationship of politics and science; tenure at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies; and his professional and personal goals.


1983 BA, Biology, Carleton College

  Professional Experience

Vanderbilt University

1988 - 1992

Research Associate, Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, with William Taylor

Columbia University

1992 - 1996

Research Associate, Center for Neurobiology and Behavior and Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, with Thomas Jessell

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies

1996 - 2001

Assistant Professor, Gene Expression Laboratories

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies

2001 - 2005

Associate Professor, Gene Expression Laboratories

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies

2005 - Present

Professor, Gene Expression Laboratories

University of California, San Diego

1996 - Present

Adjunct Assist./Assoc. Professor, Biology Department



McKnight Scholar Award in Neurobiology


Whitehall Foundation Scholar Award


March of Dimes Basil O’Connor Scholar Award


Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow Award

1999 - 2002

Pew Scholar Award


The Helen McLoraine Developmental Chair in Neurobiology

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood and College 1

Family background.  Parents.  Brother.  Childhood interests and experiences.  Early schooling.  Influential teacher.  Parental expectations.  Attending junior and high school in Rochester, Minnesota.  First research experience while in high school working in Peter Dyck’s laboratory at the Mayo Clinic. High school awards in science.  Early interest in science.  Learns how to study at Carleton College in Minnesota.  College experiences.  Has a defining moment in a developmental biology course taught by Ross Shoger.  Decision to pursue science rather than medicine.  College jobs.  Extracurricular activities.

Graduate School and Postdoctoral Work 27

Attends graduate school at University of California, Berkeley.  Works in Peter Duesberg’s laboratory.  Doctoral experience.  Meets future wife.  Postdoctoral research on developmental molecular biology in William Taylor’s laboratory at Vanderbilt University.  Wife’s career.  Decision to do a second postdoctoral fellowship in Thomas Jessell’s laboratory at Columbia University.  Jessell’s lab.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies 48

Research in molecular neurobiology on gene regulation of motor neuron development.  Accepts a position at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.  Setting up lab.  Funding history.  Current research on gene combinations for regulation of motor neurons in spinal cord development.  Wider context of work.  Process of conducting scientific research.  Patents.  Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences.  Role of the scientist in educating the public about science. Administrative duties.  Duties to professional community.  Lab management style.

The Scientific Life 79

Balancing family and career.  Typical workday.  Percentage of women as graduate students and principal investigators.  Funding scientific research.  More on educating the public about science.  Politics and science.  Tenure at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.  Professional and personal goals.

Index 98

  About the Interviewer

Robin Mejia

No further information currently available.

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