Stimulated by Science
NYAS Honorary Life Governor Karen Burke is known for finding what's exciting in NYC, from Studio 54 to Science & the City.
When Karen Burke reflects on her path to a career as a research scientist and medical doctor, she credits her mentors and supporters—inorganic chemist Michell Sienko at Cornell University who inspired her to pursue science; Harold Scheraga, then chairman of the Cornell Chemistry Department who became her PhD advisor; Ralph Steinman at The Rockefeller University, whose discovery of dendritic cells sparked her interest in dermatology; and her close friend in Manhattan, the artist Andy Warhol, who encouraged her to go to medical school and even brought her dinner during her grueling residency hours at Bellevue Hospital.
Today, Burke sees her long-time support of the New York Academy of Sciences as a way of returning the favor to the scientific community. She has been on the Academy's President's Council since 1998, served actively on the Academy's Board of Governors for nine years, and will be appointed this year as an Honorary Life Governor. She has passionately supported the NYAS Committee on Human Rights of Scientists and was an early supporter of the Academy's Scientists Without Borders program. She gives the gift of Academy membership annually to friends and family, including the science teachers at her sons' schools. And her generous contribution to the Academy's Comprehensive Campaign will help enable the Academy to continue promoting science literacy, building scientific communities, and disseminating new science and technology knoweldge.
Burke, who was raised in Swarthmore, Pa., had an interest in architecture when she won a scholarship to Cornell University. But her chemistry professors there encouraged her aptitude in science, and she graduated with a major in chemistry.
With her PhD advisor Scheraga at Cornell, Burke conducted theoretical quantum mechanical studies of protein folding as well as measurement of conformational parameters of amino acids in synthesized "sandwich" copolymers. After completing her PhD thesis at Cornell plus a nine-month stay at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, she returned to New York for postdoctoral research in cellular immunology at Rockefeller. "Ralph Steinman had just discovered dendritic cells in the liver and spleen. Similar dendritic cells had been recently discovered in the skin, so I was stimulated to specialize in dermatology to investigate these so-called Langerhans cells," she says.
Burke continued research during her dermatology residency at New York University Medical School by studying clinically, and at cellular and molecular levels, the use of soft tissue implants (particularly various collagens) to treat indented scars and wrinkles and to stimulate wound healing. She also investigated immune reactions after treatment of skin cancer.
She now has a private practice for medical and cosmetic dermatology and dermatologic surgery and is on the faculty of the Department of Dermatology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center where she studies topical and oral antioxidants to reverse photoaging of the skin and to decrease the incidence of skin cancer. Burke has also been appointed to the US Food and Drug Administration General and Plastic Surgery Device Advisory Panel and is founder and president of the Karen E. Burke Research Foundation and of Longévité, Ltd.
Burke also wrote four books on staying "fit for life" with dietary recommendations based on the science of insulin regulation and hormone interactions and a concentrated, 12-minute isometric stretching routine inspired by ballet and yoga. Her book Great Skin for Life describes a daily skin care regimen based on the science of maintaining and regenerating healthy, youthful skin.
Of Warhol's influence, Burke says, "He, more than anyone, encouraged me to go to medical school. He said education becomes a part of you, and is something no one can ever take away." And Warhol's "Factory" crowd kept hours that let her have some social life outside of her studies. "I could sometimes work late and still go to the end of a ballet or a dinner or to Studio 54. I felt like I was seeing part of the 'scene' in New York," she says.
Starting with the Committee on Human Rights of Scientists, Burke has expanded her involvement with the Academy and become a loyal attendee of professional meetings on emerging scientific topics as well as Science & the City public events. She says she especially enjoyed the "Science of the Five Senses" series last year that featured scientists paired with cultural figures: "These lectures are incredibly interesting and so much fun. I always take guests, and I've never had anyone disappointed," she says. "They are truly among the most exciting science lectures in New York."