Growing up in West Berlin, Germany, I spent numerous hours in my father’s chemist shop, a drugstore where herbal medicines, chemicals and various household items were sold. This exposure — along with dabbling in the pyrotechnical adventures of mixing and igniting chemicals — fostered my early interest in the natural sciences. By age twelve, I knew that I wanted to be a chemist.
I began my study of chemistry in 1973 at the Free University of Berlin. Three years into the programme, a fellowship from the German Academic Exchange Service enabled me to study in the United States. I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where I joined the chemistry department at Vanderbilt University as an international exchange student. My primary intent at the time was to immerse myself in the English language, which I never was particularly good at in school, yet I knew would be important in a research career. Working in the laboratory of Tom Harris on the biosynthetic pathway of a fungal alkaloid, I quickly discovered that American universities offered young students cutting-edge, hands-on research experiences and fostered their early development as independent researchers. I became hooked on this style of learning and graduated a year later from Vanderbilt University with a Master of Science degree in organic chemistry.
Rather than returning to Germany as originally planned, I applied to the graduate programme at the Rockefeller University in New York. After an initial rejection, I was admitted from the waiting list. From 1977 to 1981, I studied for my PhD degree with Günter Blobel, who later received the Nobel Prize. In the course of this work, I switched my field of study from chemistry to cell biology. I had become fascinated by the complexities that govern the inner workings of living cells. During my graduate work, I discovered the signal recognition particle, a universally conserved protein/RNA complex that enables proteins to become properly localized in cells. I remained in Blobel’s group for two years, first as a postdoctoral fellow and then as an assistant professor. While in New York, I met Patricia Caldera, a native of Mexico and a chemistry graduate student at New York University. We later married and raised our two daughters, Gabriela and Sylvia.
In 1983, I joined the faculty of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco, where I moved through the ranks and served as Department Chair from 2001 until 2008. In my laboratory at UCSF, we turned our attention to deciphering the pathways that cells use to regulate the abundance of their internal organelles. With a particular focus on the endoplasmic reticulum, the organelle in which many newly made proteins are assembled, my lab uncovered the “unfolded protein response”, a complex cell-internal signalling network that adjusts the cell’s protein folding capacity to demand. Regulating the abundance of the endoplasmic reticulum is a fundamental process for all eukaryotic cells, and it is a key determinant in a number of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases. Most disease connections arise because the cell is programmed to die, rather than endangering the organism by making defective and potentially harmful proteins. My lab has identified the genes that are centrally involved in the unfolded protein response and deciphered their function in this crucial cell-internal communication pathway.
Since 1997, I have been an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Currently, I am the 2016 President-Elect of the American Society of Cell Biology and an elected member of several scientific societies such as the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina, the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for Arts and Science, and the European Molecular Biology Organization. I co-author the textbooks Molecular Biology of the Cell and Essential Cell Biology, two of the world’s most widely used works in molecular cell biology. Among the various awards I have received are the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry, the Passano Award, the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, the Stein & Moore Award, the Gairdner Award, the E B Wilson Medal, the Otto Warburg Medal, the Jung Prize, and the Ehrlich and Darmstaedter Prize.
I have always been a strong advocate of the value of basic, curiosity-driven research to society. Personally, I would consider it a crowning highlight of my career if some aspects of the basic knowledge that we have accumulated over the years are translated into a tangible benefit for mankind. It is important to realize, none of the tremendous opportunities that we now hold in our hands were obvious when we started on our journey; they only emerged gradually as we playfully and fervently followed the turns of our meandering and serendipitous path. I am grateful to have the honor of walking along this path with the outstanding and courageous young scientists who joined my lab.
24 September 2014 Hong Kong