Mike Hengartner was born in St. Gallin, Switzerland. His father was a professor of mathematics and moved his family from Switzerland to Paris, France, then Bloomington, Indiana before finally settling in Montreal, Canada. This globe-trotting at a young age gave Hengartner a facility for language. He speaks English, French and German.
Hengartner never had any doubts about being a scientist. His main problem was deciding which branch of science to focus on. Mathematics was out of the question because his older brother went into math. Hengartner initially thought of going into physics, but then read a book called What is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger. Hengartner realized that most physicists were switching fields and becoming biologists. Hengartner decided, therefore, not to waste time with physics. He graduated with a B.S. in biochemistry from Laval University in Quebec in 1988.
Hengartner was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's biology department for graduate school. He was eager to work with Nobel Laureate David Baltimore on viral proteins. However, before making the final decision, Hengartner was persuaded by a friend to attend a lab meeting where he met Bob Horvitz who ran a Caenorhabiditis elegans lab. At the time, the C. elegans field was still rather new and Hengartner didn't really like the idea of working with worms. Yet, when Horvitz approached Hengartner to ask if he wanted to work in his lab, Hengartner was too "much of a coward" to say no. It did work out for the best because in a subsequent discussion about possible projects in the lab, Hengartner became fascinated with the idea of programmed cell death, and being able to determine the mechanism using C. elegans.
In 1994, Hengartner finished his doctorate in Horvitz's lab by cloning and characterizing ced-9, a gene necessary for programmed cell death in C. elegans.
Hengartner's work in Horvitz's lab led him to other genes involved in cell death both in C. elegans and in other organisms. After his Ph.D., Hengartner became a Staff Investigator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). He is currently an Associate Professor of the Watson School of Biological Sciences at CSHL. Hengartner also teaches at SUNY Stony Brook and organizes seminars and courses at CSHL and a number of other scientific institutions. He is an Executive Officer of the Cell Death Society and a cofounder of two biotech companies: Devgen, based in Belgium, and ForScience, based in New York. He is also on the editorial board of a number of science journals including Current Biology and Annals of Improbable Research. Hengartner has a number of patents pending based on his work.
Hengartner spends most of his leisure time with his family. He plays volleyball in the CSHL summer league, and believes that his poor game is due to his lack of height (Mike is 5'9"). Hengartner recently won the haiku portion of the 2000 Blackford Coffee Poetry Contest (Blackford is CSHL's cafeteria) with this submission:
Black oozy syrup
Brew'd daily by the gallons
Free but at what price?