Ithaca was a surprise for me. I had been interviewing for academic positions in Europe and in the States. Ithaca was at the end of my interviews. Although I enjoyed the process and meeting people, I was exhausted after flying back and forth. Once I left the plane, Ithaca grew on me very rapidly. Because I am accustomed to big cities, I was surprised by how many features of a big city Ithaca has, but yet it is affordable and pleasant.
I was at Rockefeller University in New York City for three months, and then the lab moved to Berkeley. I was at UC-Berkeley four years before coming to Cornell. I prioritized and applied for positions where I could see myself living and working. Prior, I had interviewed at the Max Planck Institute, a major university in Munich, and a research institute in Basel, Switzerland.
I like to be at a place where the biologists can talk to physicists and chemists, and the chemists are not afraid to collaborate with the biologists. I want the way we think about and approach biology and science in general to be interdisciplinary at the interface of method development and cutting-edge, forward-driving methodology. Cornell is a unique campus where we have a very strong collaborative focus between these kinds of groups, which is not found at a typical medical school. The strong physicists and the strong chemists are not at a medical school. You find them at basic research universities. Cornell is an exception because so many of these areas are strong. This is what attracted me. It is similar to Berkeley—kind of like the old crowd I interacted with there. I also liked that Ithaca is similar to Berkeley, but more affordable.
I knew about the work of a lot of people at Cornell before I came just from the literature: Barbara Baird (Chemistry and Chemical Biology), Jerry Feigenson (Molecular Biology and Genetics), Rick Cerione (Molecular Medicine), Ruth Collins (Molecular Medicine), and Watt Webb (Applied and Engineering Physics). I knew about the academic strength of Cornell—the trigger came when I interviewed and saw that everybody was talking and working with each other, and I liked that idea. The synchrotron was another big factor. I do structural biology, and the synchrotron is an essential asset to my research. I wanted to be where my work is facilitated by facilities, as well.
Deciding to come to Cornell was a no-brainer in the end. It was the best in terms of scientific environment and personal preferences. And to try out a smaller town would be a positive challenge.
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“We do everything in the lab up to the state where we get a protein crystal. When Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) is in operation, we go down the road and shoot our crystals. Holger Sondermann, Molecular Medicine”