Autobiography of Michael Rosbash
I am always reluctant to write about my life. When necessary, I follow the advice of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland. When asked by Alice how to proceed on her journey, the Queen replied, “Start at the beginning, continue until you get to the end, then stop.” Although a length restriction makes this strategy challenging, I will try to follow this chronological advice with only a few exceptions. The first is that I won’t start quite at the beginning, which is not my early childhood or even my birth but the emigration of my parents from Nazi Germany and their new life in the USA. A one sentence summary of these events is that after some years of trouble and considerable hard work, my parents established a satisfactory if not comfortable life for themselves and their two children.
My father then died of a heart attack at forty-two years of age, when I was ten and my brother was six. This tragedy affected the emotional stability of my small nuclear family. A difficult home life continued until I left for college at the age of seventeen. In fact, I chose to go to Caltech not only because of its sterling reputation as a science educational institution but also because it was 3,000 miles from my home in Newton Massachusetts. I was a difficult kid and a somewhat indifferent student but realized somehow that a new start at a good place and far from home was important.
Nonetheless, Caltech did not smooth over all my personal rough edges. Remarkably, these idiosyncrasies did not destroy my professional progress — in school, at university and afterwards, which is a testament to the American system. Moreover, my nine years of post-secondary school education, the four at Caltech and the five more at MIT, were at particularly liberal institutions. In addition to the fact that it was the 60s, an especially permissive time, elite US institutions like Caltech and MIT are filled with weird characters. Importantly, many of my professors were also wildly enthusiastic about their jobs and research, which was infectious. My PhD adviser Sheldon Penman certainly deserved the adjective “weird,” but he was brilliant, fun and a great mentor. The 60s and 70s were also a time of dramatic expansion in universities and research. In short, I came of age in a golden era of meritocracy and optimism in scientific academia.
I arrived at Brandeis in the fall of 1974 after three wonderful post-doc years in Edinburgh, from the personal as well as the professional point of view. I loved the city as well as the UK, and my post-doc mentor John Bishop taught me a lot about nucleic acids and biology in general. Indeed, my entire eight years in research had been focused on gene expression, and I continued this kind of work when I first arrived at Brandeis. Although “gene expression” and “genetics” were almost indistinguishable from the perspective of neuroscience or physiology, the latter had its own culture – and practices. I myself only realized this after arriving at Brandeis in the fall of 1974.
This is in large part because my then pal and future Drosophila circadian rhythm collaborator Jeff Hall was the quintessential genetics devotee — and prophet. Jeff arrived at Brandeis six months before I did, and we became fast friends. We were both keen on sport, as participants as well as spectators, and we had similar political interests. However, it was not until 1982 that we began working together. This is because my biochemical expertise was irrelevant until recombinant DNA technology became a practical possibility in about 1980. It allowed a molecular attack on, and ultimately a demystification of circadian rhythms. This work was initiated by us at Brandeis and independently by Mike Young and colleagues at Rockefeller University. My contributions to this field continue to this day and mean of course the contributions of my lab. I owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to the talented people who worked with me over these thirty years. Without their tireless efforts, none of this would have been possible. These people also made and continue to make the lab a fun place to work, and I consider many of them friends as well as colleagues.
1982 was also a watershed year from a personal point of view. I began a relationship with my graduate student Nadja Abovich, who became my wife. I have two wonderful daughters, Paula who is now thirty-eight and from my wife’s first marriage and Tanya who is twenty-seven. Sport remains a major interest in the family. More importantly, these three women have been an indispensable source of love and stability, which have complemented my professional life. I am so fortunate to have found joy at home as well as at work.
23 September 2013 Hong Kong