Kerry Kornfeld, MD, PhD (right), professor of developmental biology, and lab manager Luke Schneider observe C. elegans nematodes, the model organism Kornfeld uses to study cell pattern formation during development and aging. “(Kerry) is an outstanding developmental biologist and geneticist, a superb thinker and a wonderfully thoughtful person who was able to quickly forge connections between faculty and students in several departments, including molecular biology and pharmacology and genetics,” says Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor and professor of medicine, of pathology and immunology and of developmental biology.
When Kerry Kornfeld, MD, PhD, says his life began at the School of Medicine, he means that literally.
“I was born at Barnes Hospital,” says Kornfeld, whose research laboratory is located a stone’s throw from the place of his birth.
As the youngest branch on a family tree with deep roots at the School of Medicine, Kornfeld, professor of developmental biology, is carrying on the family’s tradition of excellence in both research and service.
The first of Washington University’s elite cadre of faculty members known as “Dr. Kornfeld” was Kerry Kornfeld’s grandfather Max Kornfeld, the youngest member of the Washington University School of Dentistry’s Class of 1924. Max Kornfeld began teaching metallurgy and comparative dental anatomy at his alma mater in 1925.
The next Dr. Kornfeld at WUSTL was Max’s son Stuart, who completed a medical degree at the School of Medicine in 1962 and joined the faculty in 1966. Today, Stuart Kornfeld, MD, is the David C. and Betty Farrell Distinguished Professor of Medicine, co-director of the Physician Scientist Training Program at the School of Medicine and a world-renowned physician-scientist.
It was Stuart Kornfeld’s marriage to graduate student Rosalind Hauk during his medical training that led to Kerry Kornfeld’s aforementioned birth at Barnes Hospital.
“My mom (the late Rosalind Kornfeld, PhD) had my older sister and me while she was working on a doctorate in biochemistry,” says Kornfeld of his mother, who completed the doctorate in 1961 when Kerry still was an infant.
In 1966, Stuart and Rosalind Kornfeld joined the medical school faculty and began a professional collaboration that would lead to significant scientific discoveries.
Ideas and science at home
Kornfeld grew up in a house filled with books and dinner table talk about ideas and science. A fascination with nature and animals led him to anticipate a career as a field biologist.
“I thought I would work in exotic places studying animal behavior,” Kornfeld says.
His parents fed that interest with frequent canoe trips in the Missouri Ozarks. His outdoor adventures subsequently grew in scope from canoe trips in Minnesota as a teen to mountaineering and ocean kayaking trips to Alaska as a student and to hiking and camping trips to Machu Picchu in Peru, the Amazon jungle, Kenya and Tanzania as an adult.
“I have always loved watching animals and being outside,” Kornfeld says, “but my interest in the molecular details of how animals work at the cellular level took the lead in my career decision early on. Working in my parent’s lab as a high-school student showed me how to combine my interest in animals with the power and elegance of experimental science.”
The idea of a career in research began during Kornfeld’s 16th summer. Too old to attend the summer camp he had loved for years and too young to be a counselor there, he spent the summer working in his mother’s laboratory.
“I immediately liked everything about it,” Kornfield says. “One of my jobs was to purify an enzyme. It was nothing special, but, to me, it was a really big deal.
“She was a great mentor,” says Kornfeld of his mother, who died in 2007.
While Kornfeld family members have received a great number of well-deserved awards for their achievements, Kerry Kornfeld’s first award, a first-place medal in the St. Louis Science Fair, came when he was a high-school senior. He then parlayed that win into a first-place medal at the National Science Fair, which came with a trip to the International Science Fair in England.
“From then on, I was set on getting the best scientific training I could in biochemistry, cell biology and genetics,” says Kornfeld, who bounced from coast to coast in pursuit of knowledge.
Learning from the best
At Yale University, where he majored in biochemistry, Kornfeld studied structural biology in the lab of a Nobel laureate. He earned a medical degree and doctorate at Stanford University, where he conducted thesis research with one of the pioneers in applying molecular biology to problems of developmental biology using fruit flies as the model organism.
During postdoctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Nobel Prize winner Robert Horvitz, PhD, Kornfeld came to appreciate the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism for developmental biology and got hands-on experience performing genetic analysis. Today, Kornfeld’s laboratory uses C. elegans to study cell pattern formation during development and aging.
The Kornfeld family: (from left) daughter, Kalliope; son Max; Kerry Kornfeld; son, Orion; and wife, Andrea Wilson.
Kornfeld joined the School of Medicine in 1995 at the urging of Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, who then was head of molecular biology and pharmacology, a department that was shifting its emphasis to developmental biology.
“We were very fortunate to be able to recruit Kerry,” says Gordon, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor and professor of medicine, of pathology and immunology and of developmental biology. “He is an outstanding developmental biologist and geneticist, a superb thinker and a wonderfully thoughtful person who was able to quickly forge connections between faculty and students in several departments, including molecular biology and pharmacology and genetics.”
Outside of the lab
Kornfeld and his wife, medical school classmate Andrea Wilson, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice, share an interest in Japanese art and architecture. They pursued that interest with their home a few years ago when they began an exterior remodel in authentic Japanese style.
With the same attention to detail he gives to research and teaching, Kornfeld ensured authenticity by importing a Japanese carpenter along with many of the building materials.
“We thought it was important to do it right,” Kornfeld says.
Fast facts about Kerry Kornfeld
Family: Wife, Andrea Wilson, MD; daughter, Kalliope, 13; and sons Max, 10, and Orion, 7. Canoeing Ozark streams is a favorite family activity.
Resume: Professor of developmental biology; actively involved in graduate student education, affiliated with programs in molecular genetics and genomics and molecular cell biology; co-directs the developmental biology program.
Proud that: Eight students have completed their thesis research in the Kornfeld lab. He has mentored eight postdoctoral scholars and many undergraduate students.