Role models in science – Dr Susan Lindquist


It has been a month since renown researcher of protein folding, Dr Susan Lindquist, passed away to cancer at the age of 67. I remember watching her video on prion biology while working on my PhD project looking at mechanisms involved in neurodegenerative disease. She seemed pretty cool, I thought.

She grew up in Chicago to a Swedish father and Italian mother who never expected her to come so far in her career. Being a woman, their hopes for her was to marry someone decent and successful. Coming home from a party the night before New Year’s Eve and seeing their daughter hard at work on a paper, their comments were “Are you still working? When are you going to settle down?”  I’m not so sure that parental thinking has changed significantly since then…

She found inspiration in a book detailing the life of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman who obtained a medical degree in the US, and various teachers who stimulated her interest in science. Under the guidance of her microbiology professor Jan Drake, she applied successfully for a National Science Foundation scholarship to do research in his lab. With his encouragement, she applied to graduate school in Harvard, and got in, something she had never dreamed would happen. She worked in the lab of Matthew Meselsen but failed to get any data for her first project. After talking to a colleague down the hall who noted particular phenomena to heat-exposed fruitflies however, she decided to test if any similar responses would happen in cells. That was the turning point in her career, as she found and characterized the upregulation of specific proteins induced by heat, a mechanism termed the heat shock response that would be found to be highly conserved across many organisms.

She continued to work on the heat shock response during her post-doc rather independently in the lab of Hewson Smith at the University of Chicago. She characterized how the expression of these heat shock proteins were regulated via transcription, translation, splicing or degradation. Realising that these proteins were so highly conserved across different species and were being in expressed in every cell in response to stress that occurs frequently in life and disease, Lindquist was driven to find out exactly what these proteins were doing. Her research brought her into broad and vastly different fields, as it was found that these proteins played essential roles from enhancing malignancy in cancer to managing protein aggregates so often found in neurodegenerative diseases.

She had surpassed her initial dream of writing grants under the supervision of a male superior, to managing her own lab at the Whitehead Institute at MIT. She even co-founded a company – FoldRx Pharmaceuticals – which utilized her favourite model, yeast, in a high-throughput functional assay to search for drugs that could alleviate protein aggregation in protein misfolding diseases. This was later bought by Pfizer as they sought to obtain the rights to the drug Tamafidis, which was approved for the treatment of early stage transthyretin-related hereditary amyloidosis or familial amyloid polyneuropathy or FAP.

Susan Lindquist is definitely a role model to look up to, especially for women in science. There are still far lesser women compared to men in leadership positions in science and beyond. I gather this is attributable to the demands of family rearing, the discrimination that comes hand-in-hand with being a woman attempting to lead, and the internal fight women go through to overcome natural feelings of inadequacy. But Susan shows us it can be done. And I think we would probably do a better job than men sometimes as Sandi Toksvig would agree in her hilarious TED Talk.

Read and watch more about Dr Susan Lindquist here:

Fearless about Folding | The Scientist Magazine®

Gitschier, Jane. “A Flurry of Folding Problems: An Interview with Susan Lindquist”. PLoS Genetics. 7 (5): e1002076. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1002076. PMC 3093363Freely accessible. PMID 21589898.

Short video Q&A with Susan Lindquist 


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