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Elaine Fuchs
Fiona Watt

Elaine Fuchs was born in the United States and raised just outside Chicago. In 1972 she graduated with a B.S. and highest distinction in the Chemical Sciences from the University of Illinois. Her undergraduate thesis research in physical chemistry focused on the electrodiffusion of nickel through quartz. She moved from Illinois to Princeton University to study for her PhD in Biochemistry, investigating changes in bacterial cell walls during sporulation in Bacillus megaterium. In 1977, she joined Howard Green, then at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for her postdoctoral studies. There, she focused on elucidating the mechanisms underlying the balance between growth and differentiation in epidermal keratinocytes, a system and research area that continues to fascinate her today. In 1980, she was recruited to the University of Chicago, where she moved up through the ranks to the position of Amgen Professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology and Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She moved to The Rockefeller University in 2002, where she is now the Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development.

Elaine's research has encompassed identifying and characterizing the keratin genes expressed in human skin, understanding the transcriptional mechanisms underlying gene expression and differentiation in the epidermis and hair follicles, and revealing roles for Wnt and BMP signaling in skin. Currently, her lab's focus is on understanding the niche for multipotent stem cells in skin. The thread that ties her research areas together is epithelial morphogenesis, understanding how external cues transmit their signals to elicit changes in transcription, cytoskeletal architecture and adhesion to establish the epidermis and hair follicles.

In the interview that follows, Fiona Watt, Editor-in-Chief of JCS, asks Elaine about her experiences as a woman in science.

FMW: How has your research career impacted on your personal life and vice versa?

EF: My father was a geochemist who specialized in meteorites at Argonne National Laboratories. My aunt, who lived in the house next door, was a biologist at Argonne, and an ardent feminist. My sister, four years my senior, is now a neuroscientist. My mother is a housewife, who loves gardening and cooking and used to play piano and paint in oils. Growing up in such a family, and with farm fields, creeks and ponds in the near vicinity, I developed a deep interest in science that has carried me through my professional life.

If I think back to the family influences that shaped my choice of career, I remember that my Dad strongly advocated my being an elementary school teacher. My aunt, his sister, was denied admission to medical school and she encouraged me to go into medicine. My mom told me that she thought I was a good cook and therefore I should become a chemist. My older sis was my idol, although I found her intelligence intimidating. She thought I should become an anthropologist. So, in contrast to my close friend and former colleague Susan Lindquist (now director of the Whitehead Institute at MIT), I was strongly encouraged by my family to go to college and do something with my life. I chose the University of Illinois at Urbana (my Dad told me that if there was a good reason why he should spend more than $2000 a year on my education, we should sit down and discuss the matter - otherwise, I should select either University of Illinois, our State school, or University of Chicago, where he got a tuition break. I vowed NOT to go to University of Chicago, because my sis, Dad and aunt went there, and I wanted to be different).

At the University of Illinois, I was one of three women in an undergraduate physics class of 200. My perception (shaped at least in part by the general aura of the scientific community at the time) was that, if I was to be accepted as a smart student, I probably needed to perform near or at the top of my class. I subsequently began studying very long hours, forgoing sleep and even studying while eating meals in the student cafeteria and while picketing classes during Vietnam War protests. Although my near perfect performances on tough physics and chemistry exams may have turned a few heads, I don't feel that it served the deeper purpose of education, nor did it instill in me a long-standing love for these fields.

Elaine Fuchs in her lab in 1980.

By contrast, my participation in Vietnam War protests had a deeper impact on me, and I decided to apply to the Peace Corps. Having spent my electives taking Spanish and Latin American history, I was hoping to get accepted to go to Chile, which was headed by Allende, a liberal democratic Marxist. I was instead accepted to Uganda, which was headed by Idi Amin, a ruthless tyrant. It was then that I began in earnest contemplating graduate school, choosing Princeton's Biochemistry Department, to move from physical sciences into the realm of more medically oriented science. I always suspected that my father was somehow behind the decision by the Peace Corps to send me to Uganda, but in the end going to graduate school was probably the right choice for me.

Not having taken biology since high school, I gravitated towards the most chemically oriented labs at Princeton. When I went to visit Bruce Alberts, he informed me that he only took the best students, which I was certain did not mean me. Marc Kirschner was no longer focused on physical biochemistry, but instead had begun working with disgusting-looking frogs. I settled on a Professor who had been quite open about his views that women should not be in science. Despite the fact that I was viewed by my mentor as a major disappointment relative to a fellow male graduate student who joined the same lab, I did learn from my mentor how to do well-controlled experiments, for which I've been forever grateful. Twenty years later, my mentor's views regarding my relative lack of scientific skills even seemed to soften a bit.

Although I received my PhD in biochemistry, my education had not been very typical. I graduated without yet isolating protein, RNA or DNA. However, I had been frugal with my $3000/year graduate stipend, and had managed to travel (3rd class) through India, Nepal, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Turkey, Greece and Egypt (I've still never gotten to Chile or Uganda). In retrospect, I understand why my advisor had not taken me seriously!

Somehow, I managed to be accepted into the lab of Howard Green at MIT, and during my postdoctoral years, I limited my travel to Morocco, and began in earnest doing experiments. I chose Howard's lab, because he was one of the pioneers in mammalian stem cell biology. He had developed methods to culture human epidermal stem cells under conditions where they could be maintained and propagated. I was yearning to switch model systems from bacteria to humans, hoping that my research might be more medically applicable, and I wanted to study the biochemical mechanisms underlying the balance between growth and differentiation in normal human cells. The system seemed ideal, and led me to become a skin biologist. Mouse genetics came later in my career after I was appointed to the HHMI at the University of Chicago, and had the resources to complement the culture system.

My experience at MIT had a powerful impact on my career. Howard Green was a quintessential cell biologist, which was something completely new to me. Nearly every lab at MIT was humming with brilliant postdocs, and I rapidly got hooked on the excitement of the science around me. I began to think that perhaps a scientific career might even be a possible goal for me - at least at some small teaching college or state university. After my first year at MIT, my advisor from Princeton nominated me for an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago, something that I assumed was to be a trial run for an academic job later down the road. I viewed the invitation to speak as a free trip home to visit my family, and was quite amazed when I subsequently received a job offer. It was only then when I began to realize that somebody must think more highly of my accomplishments than I did. My family's pressure to accept the position was relentless and so I began an academic career as an independent scientist, feeling at the base of a totem pole of fantastic colleagues.

FMW: What changes for women in science have you observed during the course of your career?

EF: At Chicago, I was the first woman in a department of 15 biochemistry faculty members. But Janet Rowley, who already was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a famous cytogeneticist, was in the Department of Medicine, and she sent hand-written notes congratulating me on every small success that would come my way. This inspired me, as did meeting Susan Lindquist in the Department of Biology, who became my long-standing close friend and colleague. In 1982, Sue also introduced me to David Hansen, to whom I have been happily married for 16 years!

Chicago reorganized their biological sciences departments in 1985, and Sue, Janet, several other women and I all chose to join the same Department, Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology. All of a sudden, women faculty members were in abundance and a force to be reckoned with. This and fantastic students became an endless source of enjoyment for me, and I remained at Chicago for over 20 years.

I feel that although there is still considerable work to be done to pave the way for women in science, the situation has improved considerably during the course of my career. Women are now routinely asked and elected to serve the scientific community in important ways. In this regard, I have served on the Advisory Council for the Director of the NIH, the Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and was President of the American Society of Cell Biology. In addition, major scientific organizations have cracked the door open wider for women, and I certainly feel fortunate to have been elected by my colleagues to the NAS, the Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I also feel honored to have received recognition from my colleagues through a number of scientific achievement awards, including the Richard Lounsbery Award from the NAS and an honorary doctorate degree from Mt Sinai and New York University Medical School. As women continue to make their way in the scientific community at all levels and in greater numbers, we will continue to see a rise in the creativity, reflection and breadth of thinking that is so necessary to move science forward.

FMW: Do you feel that being a woman is an inherent advantage/disadvantage for a career in science? Why?

EF: I can't say that it is or isn't, but for me the discrimination I have faced personally has served as an inspiration and a challenge to do better, not as an impediment to my career. The one thing I do feel now is that it is important for senior women to remember that the road for women scientists is not always an easy one. There is still substantial room for the scientific community to grow in the realization that, by opening the door to women, it is going to raise the level of scientific excellence. Senior women who are recognized by their peers as being successful have a responsibility to help educate those scientists who haven't quite accepted this important message. And we have a responsibility to maintain the highest scientific and ethical standards and to serve as the best role models we can for the younger generation of outstanding scientists - both men and women - who are rising through the ranks. Leading by good example is still the best way to diffuse the now more subtle and less vocal, but nevertheless lingering, discrimination and dogmatism against women scientists within our scientific community.

No discussion of women and careers is complete without addressing the issue of children and motherhood. In my case, I'm afraid I don't serve as a good role model because I don't have children. However, I'd like to emphasize that this was a decision that my husband and I consciously made together. I'm married to the Director of Philosophy and Education at Teachers' College, Columbia University, and for the past 20 years that we've known one another, we've enjoyed traveling the world, going to operas, symphony and chamber music concerts, eating leisurely dinners, dancing, swimming, quiet reflection, education and service to the broader community. We love our nieces and nephews, but children were not a high priority for our lives together. In another world, things might be different. However, I certainly don't view this decision as a sacrifice that I had to make for my science.

FMW: What are your remaining career ambitions?

EF: I made the decision to move to Rockefeller in 2002 because it provided an exceptional constellation of world-renowned colleagues, generating a rich and stimulating new environment for the 17 postdocs and technicians who moved with me. Our research has progressively moved to the field of morphogenesis - understanding the molecular process that begins with a single stem cell and ends with a functional tissue, either epidermis or hair follicles. Characteristic of my checkered past, the research is a blend of biochemistry, molecular biology, cell and developmental biology, and the area enables us to combine our interests in signal transduction, transcriptional regulation, cytoskeletal dynamics and cell adhesion. The caliber of my students and postdocs keeps escalating, and the science continues to keep me in the lab nights and weekends, as it did when I was a postdoctoral fellow. Each day brings new challenges, and there is certainly no doubt now that the flame of excitement and interest in scientific discovery and education burns eternally within me. There is no `last' objective - only new horizons and challenges. The revolution in biology that I have experienced in my own career tells me not to predict what my next objective will be.

I feel strongly that we make of our lives what we put into them. To succeed in a scientific career in academia takes motivation, commitment, effort, thought, creativity, intelligence, teaching skills, technical talent, organization, leadership, oral and writing skills, compassion and a strong sense of ethics. I know I've left out many other essential traits. Very few scientists have all these attributes, but we can each achieve a high degree of satisfaction if not success through honing the subset of attributes that we do have. I know that for me, the more I work on becoming a better scientist, mentor and participator in our scientific community, the richer all aspects of my life become.