Berman, Helen

Professor II; Director, Protein Data Bank
Areas of Interest: 
Structural Biology, Bioinformatics, Protein-Nucleic Acid Interactions.
My Story: 
Shortly after I was born in 1943 in Chicago, my physician-father and housewife-mother moved our family to Brooklyn, New York. Even at a very young age, I was interested in science and aspired to become either a scientist or a physician like my father. When I was in high school, I was involved in many science-related projects. One program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), involved traveling to different laboratories around New York City. My peers and I became “subway scholars” as we learned to independently navigate our way throughout the city. I traveled to Yeshiva University every morning, which was a hike from my Brooklyn neighborhood. Then in the afternoons I went to a lab, supervised by zoologist Ingrith Deyrup, at Barnard College. With her encouragement, I later went to Barnard and majored in chemistry. 
Berman, Helen
Helen and members of the Pittsburgh lab, 1965, L to R, D. Zaharias, G. Jeffery & son, R. Shiono & daughter.

After my second year there, I was fortunate enough to get an internship at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in the laboratory of Barbara Low, who was a protein crystallographer trained by Nobel Laureate Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. In her lab, I learned how to do some of the basic steps in crystal preparation, crystal mounting, and photography. Barbara, who is still working in the field,  was one of my most influential mentors and I remain in contact with her to this day. At the age of nineteen, I decided that I wanted to further explore crystallography as a result of my experiences in her lab. After I graduated from Barnard, I went to the University of Pittsburgh to study crystallography because it was one of the few places in the United States where it was offered as a subject. I worked for George A. Jeffrey, a British small-molecule crystallographer, and studied carbohydrate structure. I was able to complete my degree in a three-year period, and then stayed on for two more years to complete a post-doc. 

In 1969, I went to Philadelphia to work at the Fox Chase Cancer Center. At first, I was a research associate working for Jenny P. Glusker, another Dorothy Hodgkin trainee. In Jenny’s lab, I began to develop my own research program. After a few years, I was appointed to an independent position at Fox Chase, and progressed from Assistant Member to Member to Senior Member. At Fox Chase, my focus was on nucleic acid crystallography and the interactions between nucleic acids and drugs. In 1989, it was time for me to make a change. After twenty years of working at Fox Chase, I moved to Rutgers. I expanded my crystallographic program to include proteins as well as nucleic acids. While studying structures such as collagen, I also developed structural databases. I knew that if the data were organized in a logical way, they could be endlessly mined for useful studies. I began a project called the Nucleic Acid Database (NDB) almost as soon as I got here. This led to collaboration with the Protein Data Bank (PDB) at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which was an archive of data from crystallographic and NMR experiments that I had helped establish in 1971. Eventually, we developed systems at Rutgers that could be used to manage the PDB data. In 1998, I became the Director of the PDB, responsible for managing this international resource used by researchers, scientists, and educators from all kinds of disciplines. 

Berman, Helen
Helen in 1976.

In parallel with all of this research, I was involved in a great deal of community activities in my scientific career. I served on many committees and was very involved in professional societies. I was president of the American Crystallographic Association (ACA) and on the Study Section for the National Institutes of Health. I was also on an advisory panel for the biological directorate at the NSF. 

I’ve enjoyed my community-based activities, but often wondered why I so involved with them. When my mother died in 1994, it made me think about why my life and my career seemed had such a strong community component. I knew that my father, who had worked very hard in his profession and was extremely academically-minded, was obviously a strong influence on my career choices. My mother, on the other hand, was very community-oriented and did a great deal of professional volunteer work. Back when Ed Koch was the Mayor of New York City, she won an award for setting up a community social-service storefront operation in Brooklyn. I realized that so much of my career and personality–what I found interesting, my work style–was influenced by both of my parents. And now as my son Jason embarks on his scientific career as a physicist in California, the cycle continues.

Overall, I feel privileged to have had so many interesting opportunities and experiences during the past forty-five years of my career. I feel fortunate that I can participate in research that I’m passionate about. I’m also glad to be in an academic environment. As mentors were such an important influence in my life, I’m proud to be mentoring the next generation of scientists in my lab and classroom.

Taken and adapted by Christina Leshko from Helen M. Berman's interview by David Berol at New Brunswick, New Jersey, 11 February 2000 (Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, Oral History Transcript # 0191).