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A Good Egg

Ralph Brinster, winner of the National Medal of Science, says the secret to his contribution to the field of transgenesis is work, work, and then more work. By Christopher Hann

Black and white portrait of Ralph Brinster
During a White House ceremony last fall, president Barack Obama gave Brinster the National Medal of Science, awarded for the scientist’s groundbreaking efforts in transgenesis. Photography by Benoit Cortet.

Ralph Brinster learned about the value of unrelenting work at an early age. The summer before entering high school, when he was 13, Brinster AG’53 started an egg business on his parents’ goat farm in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. Brinster maintained a flock of 100 chickens, made deliveries to his customers (his mother drove), and kept the books on what became a highly fruitful business. Brinster was the proverbial early bird that got the worm. He says he paid half his Rutgers bills from his egg profits. “I was very aware of costs,” says Brinster, ever meticulous. “I used to keep records.”

Brinster’s experience on the farm inspired his interest in animal genetics, but his work ethic has carried him far beyond Cedar Grove. As a professor of reproductive physiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Brinster has conducted extensive research on the manipulation of the mammalian germ line—the cells that give rise to sperm and eggs. It’s considered among the seminal advancements in the history of scientific discovery. During a White House ceremony last fall, president Barack Obama acknowledged as much, draping around Brinster’s neck the National Medal of Science, awarded for the scientist’s groundbreaking efforts to insert new genes into the germ line of a developing organism, a process known as transgenesis. “You could never go in before and change the program of life at will,” Brinster says of the revolutionary breakthrough that he and colleagues made in 1981.

Brinster keeps a framed quote attributed to the late Hyman Rickover, the four-star Navy admiral who led the campaign to develop the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine: “I’m convinced that the only way to be effective, to make a difference in the real world, is to put 10 times as much effort into everything as anyone else thinks is reasonable. It does not leave time for golf or cocktails, but it does get things done.”

It’s certainly gotten things done for Brinster. Today, he is regarded as perhaps the world’s leading expert in transgenesis, a field considered vital to future advances in agriculture, medicine, and industry. In a career that exceeds half a century, Brinster has published more than 400 articles in scientific journals. His curriculum vitae runs 36 pages, single-spaced. Penn honored him in August with a two-day symposium.

Brinster says he’s bestowed his work ethic on his own progeny—three doctors and a lawyer—each of whom once worked in their father’s lab. “I tell my kids: establish your objectives, identify your resources, make a plan, and work relentlessly,” Brinster says. “And then, if you get a little luck, you go. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. It’s the same four principles.”

Over the years, Brinster has developed something of an annual routine. Every January 1, from his lab, Brinster phones his frequent collaborator, Richard Palmiter, a molecular biologist at the University of Washington, checking to make sure that Palmiter, too, is working on New Year’s Day. “I have no hobbies,” Brinster says. “This is my hobby.” •