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Department: Molecular Biology

Berger Molecular Biology

Allison Oppenheimer Berger ’92

Senior Scientist, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

Inspired by biology

I studied molecular biology at Princeton. I had been fascinated by biology from an early age, and I spent a lot of time in science museums as a visitor and volunteer. I had a fantastic biology teacher in ninth grade who introduced us to the marvels of genes and molecular biology. I remember having so many questions and writing them down in the front of my textbook. Molecular biology seemed like a field with so many puzzles to solve, and it was truly amazing to learn about the fundamental, microscopic mechanisms of life! As a prospective student at Princeton, I visited the lab of Iva Greenwald, a professor who worked on C. elegans (microscopic worms). She was so welcoming and took an hour out of her busy day to tell me about her work and to tell me all about Princeton. It was fantastic to be taken seriously by a professor while I was still a senior in high school.

Later, as a molecular biology major, I found the faculty to be really involved with the undergraduates, and I had so many opportunities to do interesting research and learn about the latest developments in genetics and molecular biology. The highlight of my major was working in Shirley Tilghman’s lab, using a brand-new method of genetic mapping to find a gene responsible for the piebald mutation in mice. I learned so much about mouse genetics, molecular biology, and what it was really like to work in a dynamic, top-notch research lab. I immersed myself in the lab, going to lab meetings, making friends with the graduate students and postdocs (some of whom I still keep in touch with, 15 years later), skipping meals at my eating club to finish up experiments that ran into dinnertime, and pulling an all-nighter to finish putting together the puzzle that was my senior thesis. Along the way, I took fascinating courses on developmental biology, immunology, and science and society, as well as the core courses that prepared me so well for graduate school.

There were a few times when I considered majoring in something else—for example, I remember a frantic call home my freshman year, when I told my parents that I really thought I should be a chemical engineer because it seemed more practical and would lead to a job after college. And then after taking my first art history course, I flirted with the idea of majoring in that, to pursue my other long-standing interest in art. Happily, the molecular biology major was very flexible, and I was able to take plenty of electives to pursue my many interests—classes in comparative literature, philosophy, sociobiology, psychology, politics, and history.

Finding my niche

Despite my love of biology and lab life, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for my career. I considered high school teaching, science journalism, and science policy, and for one summer I thought about going to medical school to do environmental medicine. In the end, I decided that grad school in molecular biology would be exciting and a good stepping stone if I wanted to pursue any of those other interests later. After finishing my Ph.D. in genetics, I still had an open mind. I considered going back to school in genetic counseling, or getting a degree in public health, and I interviewed for jobs at a science museum, at a public relations company for the biotech sector, and for a postdoctoral fellowship at the company I work at now, Millennium Pharmaceuticals. I decided to go for the postdoc position, and nine years later, I love what I do—working as part of a team to develop drugs for people with cancer, doing research that spans the divide between basic biology and clinical application. My major in molecular biology prepared me well for this career, but there are many other interesting directions I could have taken with molecular biology as the foundation.

“Happily, the molecular biology major was very flexible, and I was able to take plenty of electives to pursue my many interests—classes in comparative literature, philosophy, sociobiology, psychology, politics, and history.”