July 2012

Q&A with ASBMB President Jeremy Berg

Photo of Jeremy Berg as a freshman in college 
Jeremy Berg, center, as a college freshman at Stanford University in the laboratory of Lubert Stryer, left, in 1977. At right is Alex Wlodawer, then a postdoctoral fellow working with Keith Hodgson. Wlodawer is now a laboratory chief at the National Cancer Institute. Photo courtesy of Berg.

What would you say were the turning points in your career and life?
Berg: On the professional front, I decided after I finished my Ph.D. to do my postdoctoral training in something very different. I changed fields almost completely, away from pure chemistry and into biochemistry. At that point, it just was an exploration, but it turned out to be an irreversible change. That has had a huge impact on what I’ve ended up doing throughout my career. I also decided, after much thought, to take an opportunity to become a department chair at a time when it was pretty scary to be taking on extra responsibilities. But it turned out to be something that I really enjoyed and was good at. Once I got into administration, I got a taste for it and took advantage of opportunities to get involved in bigger issues. I’ve enjoyed that.

On the personal side, my postdoc coincided with getting back together with my old college girlfriend, who has been my wife for almost 28 years now. She’s an M.D./Ph.D. In addition to our lives and family together, she has a big influence on the breadth of my scientific and medical knowledge. She does patient care and clinical research. Because of that, we have frequent conversations about research and how to make a difference in the lives of people.

What’s the one piece of advice you wish you had been given when you were younger?
Berg: Don’t be afraid to explore ideas that are pretty far away from your comfort zone. It’s something that I ended up doing but in a much more haphazard method than driven by advice.

You and your wife have successful careers as well as three children. How do you balance the demands of work and family?
Berg: It’s been a combination of things. When we first married, we decided that we would have kids and then build our lives around them. When you have children to deal with, you can’t worry and plan. You just go through (each day). The other thing was we were lucky that Wendie’s mother had just retired when our first son was born. She came out to help for the first few weeks after he was born and ended up staying with us for about 13 years, although this arrangement was not without its tensions. She’s now 92 and just moved with us to Pittsburgh from Maryland so that we can help take care of her. She’s been part of our (household) more than 25 years now.

There are certainly compromises when you have young children and a wife with clinical responsibilities where there isn’t much flexibility. I didn’t spend as much time in the lab as I probably would have otherwise. The upside of that was I spent more time thinking rather than doing. I think there’s a big lesson in that. Rather than doing the next experiment, it’s better to take some time and really digest what you’re doing, think about strategy and how to approach the problem, instead of just charging ahead enthusiastically without doing the same amount of thinking.

What’s your advice to postdocs and graduate students?
Berg: There’s a myth that most postdocs and graduate students go into academic careers. The reality is that they go off and do lots of other different things. Some go into academia. Some go into biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies, policy or writing. Certainly, my own students and postdocs have done a wide range of things. I think it’s a good thing for all concerned.

The question is how to prepare yourself. I think it’s fairly simple. The skills that you need are critical thinking, writing, expressing yourself and organizing your time. Those skills help you in academia or whatever you do. Be broadminded about what the options might be, do a fair bit of self-examination, and think through your priorities and what you want. That way, you are prepared to make decisions about how to pursue your career when an opportunity or challenge presents itself.


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