Interview transcript portion:
TZB: What attracted you to chemistry?
JK: I have no idea. Physics felt too
masculine to me. I never understood pulleys and weights and I was not one for
sliding under the car and tinkering with the engine. But chemistry,
—conceptually, it was just so logical. I loved the logic. My mother has an
artistic temperament and actually later became quite an accomplished artist.
What I gravitated toward was clarity and I saw chemistry as offering a kind of
clarity. So I knew that I would do science.
TZB: Was your family supportive? Was there an
expectation that you would go to college?
JK: My family really wanted me to become a
lab tech and get married. That was their hope for me and I didn't want that.
So I had to push pretty hard just to convince them to send me to college. My
step-dad was willing to pay the tuition at Temple University in Philly. And I
said, “No, I want to go to Penn—UPenn.” I ended up getting a partial
scholarship from Overbrook High School. I graduated second in my class of a
TZB: You were pretty driven then.
JK: I was very driven even as a young child.
TZB: Do you think—did the competitive drive come
from your family or was in internal, or—
JK: It's hard to separate out, isn't it? But
I've always been a rather driven person and I think (I'm sure) part of it was
that my dad left when I was two and that created all kind of problems in the
family. And my mother became quite distraught as a single woman. What was she
going to do?
TZB: Did he live nearby or—
JK: I never saw him practically after two, so
my stepfather became my father. He raised me and I had a very close and
wonderful relationship with him, but there was this early childhood stuff,
which I'm sure was very important. And then there was the fact that I'm smart
and I did well in school and lots of positive feedback. And then there was
this inspiration that happened in high school. It's like everything was
working. I think I probably have more of an artistic temperament than even a
scientific temperament, except that I as a child needed the kind of structure
and clarity that science offered me. So that's the psychological
interpretation. But there was just a love of the subject. It wasn't the
periodic table early on. I came to appreciate the periodic table much later in
life. I think a lot of people are drawn in by the beauty of the elements and
the periodic table, but I was really just drawn in by the explanations for what
goes on around us.
TZB: In a sense you're visualizing what goes on,
TZB: So there is a humanistic element.
JK: I think so. When I got elected to the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences my students kept kidding me. They said,
“Did you get elected for the arts part or the science part?” [chuckles] So
the kind of science we've done has always had a unique stamp to it. I have
always trusted intuition very much in science. I often encourage my students
to do that. It's, perhaps more of a feminine touch to the way science is done.
TZB: Has your intuition led you in some—
JK: Well, I don't know. I certainly haven't
seen everything in advance but I have recognized when data didn't add up and
have trusted myself to follow that.
TZB: So you went to the University of
Pennsylvania and you knew immediately you were going to major in chemistry.
JK: Oh, yes. There was no question.
TZB: No doubt.
JK: No question.
TZB: And what was Pennsylvania like? Did you
JK: Well, I was from Philly so I commuted the
first year. I then went to live in the dorm, and that was the beginning of my
real independence. I was in the College for Women. I'm 61 years old. In 1958
there were separate colleges for men and women, although we took all our
classes together. Actually, I didn't even know enough to be offended by this
structure [laughter]. I was just so naive and I was a shy young woman. But I
liked being at a large school and I liked the social life as well. I became
kind of a bohemian in those days and took lots of history and art and finished
with a B.A, not a B.S. I was really clear I wanted to have a broad education.
I liked to read; I liked art. And I have no regrets about that. And I felt
quite supported at Penn. I really enjoyed my time there. It was a wonderful
time in my life. It was an urban center and yet, it is a beautiful campus. I
joined a sorority because it gave me a place to live. It was very hard, being
a city person, to get room in the dorms, so I lived in a sorority for a couple
years. It was kind of the sorority for people who didn't really want to admit
they were in a sorority. But it was—yes, it was a good time. I made wonderful
friends. I felt I was free. I could go to college and there was this sense
of, oh, my God, there is a world out there. I was really trying to create my
place in the world. I also realized at that time that I wanted to do biology
but from a chemical perspective. I graduated in '62 and this was way ahead of
the current trend in chemical biology. I knew very clearly that I wanted to
understand biological problems from a chemical perspective. From the very
beginning of my career. I applied to graduate schools with the goal of a
Ph.D. Now, in those days everyone was getting married. You went to college to
find a husband. And so, I remember at age 21 feeling like an old maid. I
mean, imagine that in today's world. It's just outrageous to even imagine
feeling like that.
TZB: Were you one of the few women in chemistry
at that point?
JK: There were women but, you know, I never
even thought of myself as, woman, man. It never occurred to me that it wasn't
a suitable thing for a woman. It was really what I wanted to do and it was
almost as if I had blinders on. I'm sure there was all of this sexist stuff
going on, but I was oblivious.
TZB: You probably just didn't even notice.
JK: I just ignored it. I've done that a lot
in my career and I think it's paid off. I don't know how I did that. It's
probably just some weird defect in my mental wiring.
TZB: You're focused on what you're doing
TZB: —worrying what other people are doing to
JK: Other people that has not been a big
TZB: So you knew immediately you were going for
a Ph.D., which—
TZB: —that time period is probably pretty rare.
JK: Yes, I think so.
TZB: So you did—but you didn't notice anything.
No one tried to discourage you from doing that?
JK: No one tried to discourage me, although
at the time I was considering whether to go to medical school or not. I did
have several interviews for med school. I found the interviewers extremely rude
at some schools. I think in those days practically no women got into medical
school. I was admitted to the Woman's Medical College in Pennsylvania, but
declined their offer. Although, I could have gone to medical school, my
parents were not supportive. First of all, I'd gone to college, whereas they
had originally encouraged me to be a lab tech. And I didn't like medicine
enough to incur the necessary debt. It was clear every time I reached a
juncture that I was veering toward the sciences. In retrospect, it was
definitely the right decision for me. I decided to go to New York City for
graduate school and I wrote to Columbia and NYU. Columbia turned me down for a
fellowship and NYU offered me a fellowship, so I went to NYU.
TZB: And did you like it there?
JK: No, I hated it.
TZB: Really? Being in New York or just
JK: It was a grungy department. The
facilities were poor. The level of competitiveness was just extraordinary.
TZB: Were there other women there?
were a few, yes. Once again, the male and female thing did not loom large for
me. I was a T.A. and I really disliked the environment, although I studied very
hard and I learned an enormous amount.