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If you like Bert Vogelstein's story, you might also like:
Keith Black,
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Francis Collins,
Gertrude Elion,
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John Gearhart,
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Shinya Yamanaka

Bert Vogelstein's recommended reading: Miss Pickerel Goes to Mars

Bert Vogelstein also appears in the video:
Frontiers of Exploration: From the Cell to the Solar System

Related Links:
Johns Hopkins University
Nobel Week

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Bert Vogelstein
Bert Vogelstein
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Bert Vogelstein Interview

Cancer Researcher

May 23, 1997
Baltimore, Maryland

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  Bert Vogelstein

How did you first become interested in medical research? Was this something you'd wanted to do since you were a child?

Bert Vogelstein: I don't think there was any simple path. My father was a lawyer and a lot of older people in my family were lawyers. No one was a physician, no one was a scientist. There was a strong background of scholarship in my family. I come from 13 straight generations of rabbis, all of whom were very well-known in Europe and had written books. So there was a very strong strain of scholarship, but nothing in medicine.

I guess when I was 10 or 11 I kind of wanted to be a lawyer like my dad. And, when I went to high school I got interested in science, and I was pretty good at it, I guess. And, it wasn't until I was actually in medical school -- even past medical school, about five years after medical school -- that I finally decided what I wanted to do. So, there was a lot of indecision. I knew I wanted to continue to learn things about science, and about eventually medicine. But, I had no formed idea of what I wanted to do until I was maybe 27, something like that.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What kind of a kid were you?

Bert Vogelstein: I was a very serious kid. I would not say that I was popular in the sense that that word is usually used. I always had a few what I considered close friends, and I like to think that I was popular among my few close friends. But, I certainly wasn't the belle of the ball. I was never very socially interactive. In fact, I was kind of shy and scared of interacting with other kids and going to parties and stuff like that.

I was pretty serious. I did a lot of things, in addition to going to school. I had a good time, I had a great family. I used to play a lot of sports, but I was pretty serious, and I always read a lot. I read because I enjoyed it, that's the only reason.

Was there a lot pressure from your family to excel academically, or was it your natural predisposition?

Bert Vogelstein: There was no overt pressure, there was covert pressure. Parents often do that to their children, either purposefully, or unintentionally. I was expected to do extremely well in school.

When I was asked to leave the second grade, because I wasn't behaving properly, my parents were not overjoyed. But, they tolerated it, and I had to switch to a private school. And, I lasted there for about eight years, in the private school, until the dean of the private school asked my parents whether I wouldn't be happier in a public school again, so I changed. But, the reason was not because I was a troublemaker, it was mainly because I didn't go to school much. Instead of going to school -- there was a public library right next to the school and I just, in the morning -- I used to go there and read all day and not go to classes. Not all the time, but a few days a week because I thought I'd learn more reading. But, my teachers didn't agree that that was the best way to get an education.

What did you read?

Bert Vogelstein: Everything. I'd just go to the library and look at the shelves. If anything looked interesting, I'd pick it up and read it. It was a little library, so after several years of doing that, I had read a good portion of the books that looked interesting to me. That was fortunate, because that's when they asked me to leave.

Is there a book that stands out in your mind from when you were younger?

Bert Vogelstein Interview Photo
Bert Vogelstein: One book whose contents I remember best was called Mrs. Pickerel Goes to Mars. Somehow this woman got on a spaceship that was going to Mars. She was going there with a scientist who appeared to be very absent-minded. They took off with this woman in the ship and he didn't seem to know what was happening. She was flabbergasted that he was so scatterbrained and he said, "I try to keep in my mind only the things that are important. I write all the details down, so I don't have to fill up my brain with these silly details." That stuck with me. In fact, that's what I try to do. For better or worse, people often times think I'm scatterbrained for the same reason. If they get in a car with me, I'm at least as likely to go somewhere completely different, as I am to go to where we're supposed to go. I try to keep my brain free for important stuff, rather than trivia. So that book actually had an influence.

Was medical school an obvious extension of your high school interest in science?

Bert Vogelstein: When I graduated high school I thought I wanted to go into medicine. Part of the reason was that Johns Hopkins was here in Baltimore. I grew up here and I knew a lot about Johns Hopkins. I was always reading about it and it seemed like a great place to be and to study.

When I went to college I initially thought I was going to major in pre-med kind of courses, but I took math courses and I found them much more intellectually stimulating than the standard pre-med courses. So, I decided to major in mathematics and, in fact, went to graduate school in mathematics for a year. I finished college early, so I had an extra year to kind of fool around, and I went to graduate school. I took graduate courses in math. And, I began to feel, even though math was incredibly intellectually stimulating, it didn't have the practical edge that I wanted. I wanted to be able to do something for people.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Maybe that comes from my 13 rabbi forbears. I thought math was great, but I felt like I was playing chess. It was a wonderful game, but I wondered whether I would ever be able to apply what I was doing to helping other people. I didn't really know much about medical science or biology, but I thought, "If you go to medical school, they'll probably teach you about that stuff." So I applied to medical school. I had taken the requisite courses in college, I got in, and enjoyed medical school. Soon after that, I recognized that research was what I really liked. I recognized that by doing it. I think it's very difficult and wrong for people to assume that they will like something just because they've heard about it or read about it. You really can't tell until you do it.

The first summer after medical school I did some research in a lab with a gentleman named Howard Densis, and I immediately knew that this was fun. This was exciting, this was something you could really apply your innovative skills and your creativity to. And, that's the way I continued through medical school. Whenever I had a chance in the summers, I would take off quarters or semesters to do research. And that's kind of when I decided to probably concentrate on medical research.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

I still didn't know whether I wanted to be a physician, too. That was a very difficult decision. They're very different careers, and I didn't decide that until later.

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 21:06 EDT
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