Helen M. Berman
Helen M. Berman is the director of the RCSB Protein Data Bank – one of the member organizations of the Worldwide Protein Data Bank
Worldwide Protein Data Bank
The Worldwide Protein Data Bank, wwPDB, is an organization whose mission, according to its website, is "to maintain a single Protein Data Bank Archive of macromolecular structural data that is freely and publicly available to the global community." Given the open access goal, it is somewhat ironic...

 and a Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University
Rutgers University
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey , is the largest institution for higher education in New Jersey, United States. It was originally chartered as Queen's College in 1766. It is the eighth-oldest college in the United States and one of the nine Colonial colleges founded before the American...

. A structural biologist, her work includes structural analysis of protein-nucleic acid complexes, and the role of water in molecular interactions. She is also the founder and director of the Nucleic Acid Database, and leads the Protein Structure Initiative Structural Genomics Knowledgebase.

Background and education

Berman was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, David Bernstein, was a physician and her mother, Dorothy Bernstein (née Skupsky), managed her father's office practice. Inspired by her hard-working and scholarly father, she was interested in science as a young girl and planned to become a scientist or doctor. Her mother, who was strongly involved in the community and volunteer work, influenced her to be involved in community activities throughout her life.

During high school, Berman worked in Ingrith Deyrup's laboratory at Barnard College
Barnard College
Barnard College is a private women's liberal arts college and a member of the Seven Sisters. Founded in 1889, Barnard has been affiliated with Columbia University since 1900. The campus stretches along Broadway between 116th and 120th Streets in the Morningside Heights neighborhood in the borough...

. Deyrup encouraged Berman to attend Barnard as an undergraduate. While at college, she worked in a Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, often known as P&S, is a graduate school of Columbia University that is located on the health sciences campus in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan...

 laboratory with Barbara Low. There, Berman learned about crystallography
Crystallography is the experimental science of the arrangement of atoms in solids. The word "crystallography" derives from the Greek words crystallon = cold drop / frozen drop, with its meaning extending to all solids with some degree of transparency, and grapho = write.Before the development of...

, which would become a lifelong passion She graduated from Barnard with an A.B. in chemistry in 1964.

Following college, Berman attended the University of Pittsburgh
University of Pittsburgh
The University of Pittsburgh, commonly referred to as Pitt, is a state-related research university located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. Founded as Pittsburgh Academy in 1787 on what was then the American frontier, Pitt is one of the oldest continuously chartered institutions of...

, which she selected because it was the only place in the country with a crystallography department, and one of the few where crystallography was offered as a subject. There she worked with George A. Jeffrey on carbohydrate structure. She attained her Ph.D. in 1967, and remained at the University of Pittsburgh for two more years as a postdoctoral fellow.

Professional career

In 1969, Berman moved to the Fox Chase Cancer Center
Fox Chase Cancer Center
The Fox Chase Cancer Center is a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center research facility and hospital located in the Fox Chase section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. The main facilities of the center are located on property adjoining Burholme Park...

 in Philadelphia, where she worked in Jenny P. Glusker's laboratory before starting her own independent research program as a faculty member in 1973. At Fox Chase, Berman became interested in nucleic acid structures and in bioinformatics. She knew that logical organization of data would make it useful to a variety of scientists.

In June 1971, Berman attended a symposium at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is a private, non-profit institution with research programs focusing on cancer, neurobiology, plant genetics, genomics and bioinformatics. The Laboratory has a broad educational mission, including the recently established Watson School of Biological Sciences. It...

, where several scientists agreed that data on the expanding number of protein structures should be archived in a database. That meeting led to the creation of the Protein Data Bank (PDB) at Brookhaven National Laboratory
Brookhaven National Laboratory
Brookhaven National Laboratory , is a United States national laboratory located in Upton, New York on Long Island, and was formally established in 1947 at the site of Camp Upton, a former U.S. Army base...


In 1989, Berman moved to Rutgers. In 1992, along with other scientists, she founded the Nucleic Acid Database to collect and disseminate information about nucleic acid structure. At Rutgers, she continued to study nucleic acids, their interactions with proteins, and also researched the structure of collagen
Collagen is a group of naturally occurring proteins found in animals, especially in the flesh and connective tissues of mammals. It is the main component of connective tissue, and is the most abundant protein in mammals, making up about 25% to 35% of the whole-body protein content...

 in collaboration with Barbara Brodsky and Jordi Bella.

In 1998, Berman competed for and won the contract for the Protein Data Bank and the database moved from Brookhaven to the auspices of the Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics, currently a collaboration between Rutgers and the University of California, San Diego. With colleagues, Berman redesigned the data management system, added new user tools, and made the database searchable. Since 2003, the PDB archive has been managed by the worldwide Protein Data Bank
Worldwide Protein Data Bank
The Worldwide Protein Data Bank, wwPDB, is an organization whose mission, according to its website, is "to maintain a single Protein Data Bank Archive of macromolecular structural data that is freely and publicly available to the global community." Given the open access goal, it is somewhat ironic...

, a partnernship founded by Berman that consists of organizations that act as deposition, data processing and distribution centers for PDB data. As of October, 2008, the PDB holds more than 53,000 structures.
Also led by Berman, the Protein Structure Initiative (PSI) Structural Genomics Knowledgebase was launched in the Spring of 2008 to provide a continuously updated portal to research data and other resources from the PSI efforts.

Berman has also been active in the scientific community, serving as president of the American Crystallographic Association in 1988, advising both the National Institutes of Health and the National Scientific Foundation, and serving on the editorial board of several journals.


Berman has been married twice, to engineer Victor Berman in the 1960s, and to molecular biologist Peter Young from 1976 to 1999. From the second marriage she has a son, Jason Asher Young (born 1979), a physicist.

During the 1980s, Berman was diagnosed with breast cancer. The experience made her more focused in her life and her career, and interested in supporting other women who face the same diagnosis.

Honors and awards

  • New Jersey Woman of Achievement (1993)
  • Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science (1996)
  • Outstanding Woman Scientist Award, Association for Women in Science
    Association for Women in Science
    The Association for Women in Science is a national advocacy organization championing the interests of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics across all disciplines and employment sectors.-History:...

    , New York Chapter (1999)
  • Distinguished Lecturer, Sigma Xi
    Sigma Xi
    Sigma Xi: The Scientific Research Society is a non-profit honor society which was founded in 1886 at Cornell University by a junior faculty member and a handful of graduate students. Members elect others on the basis of their research achievements or potential...

    : The Scientific Research Society (2007–2009)
  • Distinguished Service Award, Biophysical Society (2000)
  • Fellow, Biophysical Society (2001)
  • M.J. Buerger Award, American Crystallographic Association (2006)
  • Distinguished Lecturer, Sigma Xi (2007 - 2009)
  • Department of Chemistry Alumni Award from the University of Pittsburgh (2010)
  • American Crystallographic Association Fellow (2011)

Journal articles

  • "The Nucleic Acid Database: A comprehensive relational database of three-dimensional structures of nucleic acids." Berman HM, Olson WK, Beveridge D, Westbrook J, Gelbin A, Demeny T, Hsieh S-H, Srinivasan AR and Schneider B. Biophysical Journal 63: 751–759 (1992).
  • "Crystal and molecular structure of a collagen-like peptide at 1.9 Å resolution." Bella J, Eaton M, Brodsky B and Berman HM. Science
    Science (journal)
    Science is the academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is one of the world's top scientific journals....

     266: 75–81 (1994).
  • "The Protein Data Bank." Berman HM, Westbrook J, Feng Z, Gilliland G, Bhat TN, Weissig H, Shindyalov IN and Bourne PE. Nucleic Acids Research 28: 235–242 (2000).
  • "Structural basis of transcription activation: The CAP-αCTD-DNA complex." Benoff B, Yang H, Lawson CL, Parkinson G, Liu J, Blatter E, Ebright YW, Berman HM and Ebright RH. Science 297: 1562–1566 (2002).

External links

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