August 2008

"There's not enough time for everything I want to do, so I have to be focused," says Katya Heldwein. Photo: Melody Ko

Rising Star

Researcher Katerina Heldwein made the transition from Russia to the United States with ease

By Bruce Morgan

Recently Katerina "Katya" Heldwein happened to be in a taxi when the driver asked her what sort of science she was working on. "Herpes," she told him. "Hey, hasn't that been cured already?" he asked with some puzzlement.

Not quite. Heldwein, a structural virologist and an assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s department of molecular biology and microbiology, works to understand the curious behavior of the herpes virus-in particular, its ability to penetrate the human cell. Although best known for the virus that prompts lesions and cold sores in its hosts, the herpes family also includes viruses capable of causing diseases from chicken pox to shingles to cancer. "These viruses are important human pathogens," she says.

Heldwein was born in Russia and studied chemistry at Moscow State University before venturing to the United States for graduate studies at Oregon Health and Sciences University, where she earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry. She joined the faculty at Tufts in 2006.

Within the past year, Heldwein has landed three plum national prizes. First, she was named one of 20 Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences for 2007. Second, she was chosen as one of 29 recipients of the New Innovator Awards by the National Institutes of Health, guaranteeing her $1.5 million in funding over the next five years. She is also slated to receive the 2008 American Society for Microbiology Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy Young Investigator Award in October in Washington, D.C.

You grew up in Moscow-what was that like?

I had a very happy childhood. My entire family is still there. I have a sister who is six years younger than I am. My mom is also a scientist-her background is in chemistry, but she works with textiles. She has a Ph.D. My dad has a master's and an M.B.A., so both my parents encouraged me to pursue education.

Does your mixed background in chemistry and biology give you any advantage?

Most people in the field of biology come from biology-their training is more in biology, microbiology, cell biology or genetics. Not that many people have a chemistry background. My training in chemistry just helps me look at the problem from a different angle, so I'm trying to answer the same question, but I'm using a slightly different approach.

How would you compare scientific training in Russia and the U.S.?

The pluses of my experience are that I got rigorous training in chemistry, physics and math, which are considered appropriate for someone studying chemistry. The minuses are that my training was very focused, so I never had the opportunity to take, say, biology or the humanities that people take here.

Were you bilingual when you arrived in this country?

I spoke English, and I could read and write it. My spoken English was not so good because I really hadn't had an opportunity to practice. I took some classes, and I also studied some with a tutor when I was in school. And then when I was in college I got this set of tapes, and I listened to those tapes and tried to teach myself.

But the tapes were an Oxford English program, so I could really understand British speakers much better than American speakers. When I got to Oregon, I had a very hard time understanding waitresses in restaurants because they would speak this rapid-fire English.

You had a baby recently?

Yes, in September I had my son, Henry. So it is a very productive year.

How are things working out for you in terms of your schedule?

The schedule is very intense. There's not enough time for everything I want to do, so I have to be focused. Every day I have to write the list of things that I need to accomplish, and then decide, OK, is this something that only I can do, or can I delegate it to someone else? Is this something that has to be done today, or can it be done tomorrow or a month from now? I also want to make sure that I have time to think about science. Whenever I have a moment, I try to do that.

I'm still learning how to get everything done. Fortunately, there are some good examples of that in this department. There are several faculty members, especially female faculty, who have kids. They're very successful, and they do great science, but at the same time they have family. I'm trying to learn from them how they do it.

This story first appeared in the spring 2008 Tufts Medicine magazine. Bruce Morgan may be reached at

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