What is your educational background?
I went to college at Cornell University where I was in the College of Arts and Sciences. [I] was a chemistry major as well as a college scholar, which was a special program you could apply to your first year if you didn’t want to fit into a major. If you got accepted into this program, you could design anything you wanted to do. I was interested in political science and chemistry and I wanted to combine the two without the restraints of a particular major.
From there I went to Harvard University and got a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology and then to the University of Washington to do a postdoctoral fellowship, which for me was sponsored by the American Cancer Society. This is a little bit surprising for those students who know I work with yeast because yeast is the same thing used to bake bread and brew beer with, but the American Cancer Society knew that everything we learn in yeast about cell division is really applicable to humans. So that saw my introduction to cancer research.
After University of Washington, I took a year off and worked as a research technician, which was wonderful. I highly recommend taking time off to all students.
How did you get interested in biology? Were there any pivotal events?
When I went to college, I wanted to leave my home state of Wisconsin. There’s an excellent university there, University of Wisconsin, which is reasonably priced, and everybody assumed that I would go there, but I wanted to go to Cornell.
Cornell was really expensive and the only reason I see myself sitting in this seat today is that I got to go to Cornell because of financial aid and not just the financial aid that Cornell offered me. Some local alums of Cornell in my small town went to bat for me and got Cornell to agree that I could keep a particular scholarship and not subtract that from the amount of aid that Cornell was offering me. So that couple thousand dollars’ difference let me go to Cornell, which I find completely amazing on retrospect, that two loyal alums of Cornell really made the difference in my educational opportunities.
I wanted to be a lawyer, so I wanted to be a government major, so I started out by taking political theory and I had to fulfill a distribution requirement. So I took a year of chemistry, not just any chemistry, but the one the engineers and chem majors took. It was known as a really killer course. The reputation was so great that on the evening of the chemistry exams, security would staff the bridges over the gorges so that nobody would jump off. I loved this class. All my classmates were dying over it and I, a government major, was loving it. So, why did I take chemistry? In high school, I had an amazing chemistry teacher so I took it.
So out of this I had the idea I could combine chemistry and government and become, I don’t know what, a patent lawyer or something. So those were real pivotal events—that I went to a great university where I could take a lot of different things and these things would be taught at a level that I was really interested in them.
I didn’t become interested in biology until the end of my college time. I really liked chemistry and only took introductory biology in case I decided to apply to medical schools. I enrolled in a molecular biology program as a graduate study because I wanted to apply chemistry to biological questions. I was still really interested in the molecular aspects of biology. As time has gone on, my interest has become more and more biological.
When I was started grad school, I had never done molecular biology or manipulated DNA. In fact, I had never touched a petri dish, which is really remarkable considering the education I provide here for students, and they made me spend part of my first year in a lab that dealt with molecular biology and I loved it, absolutely loved it. So, I ended up joining that lab.
In grad school, the professor whose lab you work in is really critical because you end up working collaboratively with that person to start with, then you become more independent and do your own work. But it’s all under the realm of the general interests of the professor. So I choose to work with this molecular biology professor, Nancy Klecknor, one of the very few tenured women at Harvard University, and I started a brand new project in her lab, working with yeast. Her lab only worked with bacteria, which is a really different organism. Bacteria don’t have intact nuclei while yeast is the lowest form of eukaryotic cells, that is, they have an intact nucleus and are very evolutionarily related to humans.
So, as a grad student I had a lot of independence as I was doing something my advisor knew very little about, which is very rare in the sciences. . . Undergraduates tend to think that they need to know right now what they want to do, so I tell my sophomores in genetics this story about how I want to be a lawyer and it gives them some comfort.
What is your research on currently?
My research is still on using this model organism, yeast, and we study how cell division is regulated and precisely study just one part of the cell division cycle, which is called exit from mitosis: how the cells get from stage where the chromosomes are dividing on this beautiful mitotic spindle to the next stage where the two daughter cells separate from each other and go on and begin their own cell cycle by themselves. Non-biologists are often surprised by how little we know about the regulation of this stuff, which is what goes awry when our cell become cancerous. The mechanics of the cancerous cell remain essential the same. So we’re trying to use yeast to find out what genes are important in cell cycle regulation with the confidence that these genes will be helpful in studying human cancer.
In our lab right now, we’re focusing on two genes and two others more peripherally and we know that one of them has an exact homologue in humans. So we have every idea that what we learn about these genes will be relevant to humans and hopefully human cancer.
What effects have your research had?
It has certainly had effects on the systems I’ve been studying and, more recently, a gene I worked on as a grad student, a gene that’s uninvolved in DNA damage repair in yeast and recently people have found an important and pivotal role for that gene in some human cancers. So it’s been eight years since that was published and now all of a sudden, people are interested in it because of its role in humans which I was never going to pursue, but it’s neat to see your stuff come back years later.
So I think that the ramifications for the general public won’t be seen for some time but I’m confident that they will come through. I have a grant from the National Institute of Health for this and it’s part of why the U.S. government is willing to fund this work, for it’s basic foundation in changing the way we understand human medicine, knowing this is a long time project and hoping it will pay off.
Do you see your gender as having an effect on your work or your education?
Yes. At Williams, my gender has less of an effect than at any other place, and part of that is the fact that the biology department has so many women members. It’s the first place I’ve been where women are half or more than half of the department. Gender has always played a role because there are so few women in chemistry. I have certainly experienced sexist behavior from my colleagues. Often that behavior is so ingrained in out social fabric that those colleagues have no idea that they’re doing it.
Part of what I’ve done as a woman in science is to objectively educate my colleagues as to these problems. For example, one common thing people do when they invite people to conferences is to invite their friends, who often happen to be guys who they grew up in science with so the program will be 80 percent male, even though woman are about 50 percent of biologists. We have to educate people that gender should be one thing you consider when you invite people to give talks at a meeting. That’s a gentle example.
I feel that it’s excellent for Williams students to have a lot of female professors in their early years here as it breaks own their expectation that scientists will be men. At Williams, it’s clear that’s not the case. I only hope that improves the way men and women leaving Williams will see their scientific colleagues, they won’t always assume that they’ll be male. Unfortunately, in the other physical sciences women are not as well represented.