Who knew this Brandeis scientist was a champion basketball player?

Biochemist Dorothee Kern plays a mean game of hoops. Watch her jump, shoot and assist against a bunch of guys half her age.

Professor of Biochemistry Dorothee Kern is one of the country's preeminent scientists. She was also a champion basketball player.

You can find her today two times a week playing in a noontime game at the Gosman Sports and Convention Center — the Brandeis Noontime Basketball Association (BNBA). The other players are men, including several graduate students, undergraduates and staff members who are half her age.

Kern studies protein structures inside the cell, using x–ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) techniques to visualize their hidden structure and movement. Her work could one day lead to drugs that target the proteins that cause such diseases as cancer, AIDS and Alzheimer's. She is also a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

The German-born researcher started shooting hoops at age 7 and played on her country's national team before coming to this country in 1995. Earlier this year, the 5-foot-6-inch point guard was part of the winning German team at the FIMBA Maxibasketball European Championship, a league for players 30 and above. 

"A hobby, whatever it is, really helps you in your profession," Kern says. "It keeps me sane. It makes me happy. You've got to clear your head and you've got to mentally step outside of something and then come back with a fresh mind."

She grew up in what was then East Germany in the city of Halle, about 100 miles south of Berlin. The Communist country was well known for doping its Olympic athletes starting in their teens. But East Germany did not support an Olympic women's basketball team.

With less at stake, it permitted women to play on the national team without having to take steroids or join the Communist party. 

Kern played competitively throughout her youth on the East German junior and later senior national team for 10 years and also played professionally for the team in Halle.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, she was the only East German woman in 1990 who made the cut to play on the combined German national team. 

In 1995, she came to the United States to take a postdoctoral position at the University of California, Berkeley, and for this move had to give up professional sports.

The Women's National Basketball Association wasn't up and running until two years later. She still played regularly though. "The pick-up games at UC Berkeley with the young guys were incredible," she says.

Her competitors were much taller and, she says, "crazy athletic." 

Kern says being smaller than other players forces her to play the game much more strategically and to "shoot the lights out." She focuses on finding the other team's weaknesses, creating mismatches in skill between her team's players and the opponent's and making key assists. 

Leading a basketball team is a great experience for running a lab, she says. "There's almost no difference," she says. "You have to be able to get the best out of everybody. You've got to try to make everybody better and build a perfect team out of it."

Categories: Athletics, General, Research, Science and Technology

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