Susan Lindquist was a professor at MIT and a group leader, and former director, at Whitehead Institute. She studied how changes in protein structures affect the development of new biological properties, neurodegenerative diseases, cancer and infections. She also transformed budding yeast into a model organism for studying human disease, evolution, and biomaterials.
For this groundbreaking research she was appointed an honorary doctorate earlier this year. Her nearly 40-year career was defined by intellectually courageous, boundary-defying research and a passion for nurturing new generations of scientific talent, Whitehead Institute writes in an obituary.
In Chalmers, one of Susan Lindquist’s main collaborators was Dina Petranovic, Associate Professor at the Department of Biology and Biotechnical Engineering and CEO of the organization Molecular Frontiers. Susan Lindquist was a member of the Molecular Frontiers board for many years, and took active participation. The both of them also became personal friends.
– I read Sue’s papers when I was an undergraduate student, back in the late 1990’s, and approached her in 2009 during a visit in Boston. I wrote a simple email saying that I love and admire her work, that I just started working on yeast and would love to meet her if she had the time. She replied and invited me to visit her lab. It was amazing. She was busy with travels, projects in her lab, teaching classes at MIT, but she found time to meet me even though I had zero credentials and have done nothing yet in that field, Dina Petranovic says.
– I was so impressed to see how kind, open and interested she was in my ideas. In 2012, I went for a short sabbatical to her lab, and it was honestly the best time of my career – to be there and see all these amazing projects she and her group were working on was really impressive and inspiring. After I come back, we kept touch by email almost every month, and met at conferences. During her illness this year we often kept contact. Her emails were so positive and full of energy.
Susan Lindquist’s work with yeast proteins generated a multitude of insights. In a series of experiments described in a paper in 2006, she and her team introduced a Parkinson’s gene into a yeast cell and, after testing 5000 genes, isolated one gene with a protein that saved the yeast cell. Later experiments with other labs were successful in saving the neurons of fruit flies and rats. Together the studies opened a promising line of research for an eventual cure for Parkinson’s.
– I do a lot of what you would call high-risk, high-payoff research, Dr. Lindquist told an audience at Angelo State University in Texas in 2002 according to the New York Times.
– Some of my projects don’t work, but when they do work, they are pretty fabulous.
She was a fearless scientist who wanted to pursue the truth – even if it sounded weird, was unpopular or in uncharted territory, Dina Petranovic says. And to go into different systems, like she did, is very rare:
– If it works like this in yeast, does it also work in worms, in flies, in mice, in human cells, in clinical patients? It is hard and complicated to cover so many model systems, but Sue would always take the extra mile in her pursuits. That is also one of the reasons she was so respected in science and received many awards and honors for her outstanding work, such as the National Medal for Science from President Obama, and was elected into several academies including Foreign Member of the Royal Society in United Kingdom.
Susan Lindquist last came to Chalmers in 2015, to participate in the Amazing Week symposium. As she was appointed an Honorary Doctor, she was supposed to return this year in May to receive the doctorate. But she was already ill and in treatment, and the trip was postponed.
– There are a number of excellent scientists in the world, but Sue was also wonderful as a person. She was always keen to do whatever she could to support women who want a career and education in science. Not only by encouraging, but also by bringing up these important topics about injustice and glass-ceiling in high places. In daily practice, she was a supportive colleague who would selflessly open her lab and her mind to her younger colleagues, including me, sharing freely materials, data, advice, comments, insights and being proud when we did well, Dina Petranovic says.
– We knew it was a very tough battle, but she was so strong and positive that we could not believe cancer would win, at least not so soon. We lost not only a fantastic scientist but a very dear friend. Her work, ideas and human values will always live in our minds and hearts. Her husband and their two daughters are wonderful people and I am truly sad for their loss. Sue will be missed so much, by so many people.
Note: Gifts in honor and memory of Susan Lindquist may be made to the Whitehead Institute Fund to Encourage Women in Science (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Text: Mia Malmstedt
Photo: Per Thorén