Recorded: 15 Jun 2002
When I was in high school I did okay in science courses. I had a very good chemistry teacher here at Oyster Bay High School. And I would say she was the only good teacher I ever had in high school. The only one! And her name was Lillian Murad. And she was a big chemist. Why she was teaching high school, I don’t know. And her husband was a microbiologist at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. His name was Rostom Bablanian. And in the early 1960s, when I was a senior—so I graduated in 1962—
…so in 1962 I graduated from high school here. I remember in my senior year that Rostom Bablanian and Lillian Murad—the teachers used to invite bright students from the senior class to their home just to talk. And he told me what the genetic code was. He was the first person to explain to me that they had broken the genetic code and there were bits and pieces of it. (break in tape)…the way in which, you know, codons were recognized and would be translated into amino acids. So it was just brand new stuff. And I thought that was very exciting. Yeah, that’s all. I was interested in that.
I went away to college and I was in a major in biology and chemistry. I thought I would be a doctor. My grandmother always told me I was going to be a doctor anyway.
So—And I thought I would go to medical school. At the end, I did go to medical school. I went to New York University—I went as an undergraduate to Oberlin College then I came back to New York. And I went to medical school to get an M.D. degree. And my last year at Oberlin I had been doing some independent research, and they actually gave me a laboratory. And I worked with a young faculty member who was a tutor. And I did an honors project—what they call an honors project. It was a silly project. What we were working on was kind of irrelevant.
But I got interested in the idea of working in the laboratory. And I think what I liked about it was that there was no schedule and that I was pretty much free to decide what I wanted to do. And it was the first time that I had ever had—nobody instructing me. Just, you know, you allow yourself to go figure things out. I thought that was a lot of fun. And I didn’t finish the project as an undergraduate, but there was somebody at New York University who was recommended to me. He was the Chairman of Physiology—a guy named William Vander Klute. And I interviewed—when I checked into the medical school and I asked him if he would take me in his lab part-time. And he said he’d be happy to have me and I could do whatever I wanted. So, actually I finished the project there.
They had an M.D. /Ph.D. program that had just started. I don’t remember exactly when it started, but maybe the program was only one or two years old. It was very experimental. There were very few federally funded programs to receive an M.D. and a Ph.D. degree. And it had appealed to me except I had none of the undergraduate prerequisites to get into the program. And one night when I was working in the lab, Lewis Thomas came. And he was the Chairman of Medicine at NYU at the time. He would be Dean of [the] medical school—they had various jobs there—[he was] head of Pathology for a while, he did lots of things. But he recruited a lot of people to the medical center. And he came by one day and he asked me what I was doing. And he said, “Why don’t you join the M.D. /Ph.D. program, someone has dropped out. So I did.
I had to take some undergraduate courses to sort of make up for my deficiencies. So in my second year of medical school I went to night school also. It was a very hard year. I went to the Courant Math Institute to take two years of math in the evenings and in the summer.
And then I got admitted to the program and by the time I finished in 1972, I actually was more interested in doing science than doing medicine. And I remember coming home here and sitting with my mother and father and going through this monologue saying I’m really conflicted about whether I want to do science or medicine, and I have to make up my mind because if I want to do medicine I have to do an internship next year. And I went through all the pros and cons of doing different things. And my stepfather just sat there, you know, listening, listening, listening. I went on for about a half an hour. Then when I was done, he turned to me and he said, “Just do what you want. And pour your mother a glass of wine!” It’s actually the best advice I ever had! So I decided to go into science.
Charles Sherr earned his joint M.D./Ph.D. degree from New York University in 1973. He is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator based at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN. His work focuses on retroviral oncogenes, growth factors and their receptors, and cell cycle control. In 1991, Sherr's laboratory discovered the mammalian D-type G1 cyclins and went on to identify the cyclin-dependent kinases with which they associate, as well as a series of polypeptide inhibitors that negatively regulate their activities.
Sherr is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has won numerous awards and is the author of more than 235 scientific articles. He joined the National Cancer Institute in 1973, becoming a member of the NIH staff in 1975 and head of the viral pathology section, Division of Cancer Cause and Prevention, in 1977. In 1983, he relocated to St. Jude. Sherr is also a member of the Board of Trustees of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.