A group of researchers stands around a picnic table with trees in the background
Helen Berman (in white) poses with her research group at Rutgers in 1992. Directly in front of her is Dawn Cohen ’86.
Helen Berman
Helen Berman

Like many women in the sciences, Helen Berman ’64 took the first step on her career path because of a mentor — in her case, Barnard professor Ingrith Deyrup ’40.

“She was my very first mentor,” Berman recalled. She met Deyrup through a National Science Foundation program for high schoolers that placed Berman in Deyrup’s zoology lab on Barnard’s campus. “She taught me how to do things that I had no idea how to do. In that experience, I learned how to work in a lab and what a lab actually was.”

Today, Berman is known widely within the scientific community for co-founding the Protein Data Bank (PDB), a single repository of information about the structures of proteins, nucleic acids, and other biological molecules. Berman took an appointment at Rutgers University in 1989 and remained there throughout her career, serving as the Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Berman’s field of expertise is crystallography, the study of atomic and molecular structure, which spans chemistry and biology.

Without mentorship, the story might have been different.

Berman had plans to attend Brooklyn College before Deyrup encouraged her to go to Barnard instead. At Barnard, feeling zoology was not her path, Berman began taking chemistry courses. “The Chemistry Department at Barnard between 1960 and 1964 was really very supportive,” she said. “There were many people who encouraged me.”

The person who had the biggest influence was Bernice Segal. “Bernice was a very, very rigorous chemist [and] very strict,” Berman recalled of the former Chemistry Department chair. “But she was very encouraging, in spite of the fact that she didn’t always give me the best grades. I still have a blue book where she marked it up and told me all the things I did wrong.”

Berman was also influenced by physics professor Dennis Greenberg, who invited Berman to join the lab of Barbara Low at Columbia. “[Low] treated all of these young people with great respect,” said Berman. Low was a crystallographer by trade and taught students the ins and outs of the field. “Based on that experience, I decided that’s what I wanted to do for my life’s work,” said Berman. “I’ve been doing something having to do with crystallography ever since.”

Two women sit at a desk in a classroom smiling and laughing
Helen Berman and Barbara Low in 2012.

Berman has made a point of emulating the mentorship that set her on her career path. She’s sponsored scholarships at both Barnard and Rutgers, and she devotes a significant measure of her personal time to helping younger female faculty navigate academia. “I got that kind of advice from Bernice. I got that kind of advice from Barbara Low,” said Berman. “I don’t think of this consciously, but unconsciously, I’m always giving back.”

Bringing Science to the Screen

Berman is now retired — “although you would never know it,” she joked, as she still teaches as professor emerita.

With less time in the classroom, Berman has turned her attention to figuring out how to communicate scientific findings to the broader public. “One of my frustrations in doing the kind of work I did is I didn’t think that most people had any idea what a protein was, or a nucleic acid,” said Berman. “So when I started [my retirement], I said, ‘I really need to find a way to translate the importance of the science to people who are not in the field.’”

It’s a mission that’s more important than ever these days, said Berman. “With the COVID pandemic, it becomes absolutely essential. We have a perfect opportunity to teach people about biology, because it’s right up in their face, but we haven’t done that. How do you message this nation so that people will save their own lives?”

Berman found a home for this latest educational venture in the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, where she works with a team of USC-affiliated filmmakers to produce documentaries and other digital media that show people the importance of structural biology.

“The whole idea is: How do you translate what structural scientists do to a broader audience so they can understand it?” asked Berman, who is credited as an executive producer on the films.

To start, the team produced a documentary series on the medical and social aspects of HIV treatment and prevention, called Target Zero. “I originally thought it was going to be for training medical students and medical personnel,” said Berman. “But as it turns out, many people felt that it could be used for patient education and for general public education.”

The documentary series is accessible online to anyone who wants to watch it. As Berman and her team work on a fourth episode, Berman is also collaborating with USC’s World Building Media Lab on the World in a Cell VR experience, which aims to bring students inside a pancreatic beta cell to teach them about insulin production and diabetes.

About 30 researchers stand together on a set of stairs looking at the camera
The Protein Data Bank group at Rutgers in 2009. (Berman is front row, center.)

The Interdisciplinary Sciences

Berman is the first to admit that she doesn’t know much about the world of film, but her career has always been interdisciplinary. For one thing, crystallography combines elements of chemistry, physics, and geology. But Berman has also always considered narrative an essential part of communicating science.

“Whenever I lecture, I always put things into context,” said Berman. “Very early on, I learned that if you just have a conversation with your students and you tell a story, they’re much more likely to absorb the information.”

For Berman, that context is an essential part of being a scientist and one she first encountered at Barnard. “We were advised to take advantage of our environment and take courses that were not chemistry,” said Berman of her time as a chemistry major on campus. She took courses in art history and music, as well as a particularly impactful class called Philosophy of Modern Religion. 

“We learned about things that I would never have learned about, and [that] actually had a very big effect on me and the way I think about the world, because I began to understand the world from these different cultural vantage points,” Berman reflected. “I think that’s the lesson we learned at Barnard. And I’m very grateful for that.”

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