Protein folder wins National Medal of Science

Professor Susan Lindquist honored for her work on the ways proteins assemble

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Professor Susan Lindquist of the Whitehead Institute was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Obama on Friday. Lindquist is one of six MIT faculty members to have received this honor.
Courtesy of the Whitehead Institute

MIT Professor Susan L. Lindquist was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Obama last Friday. She recalls her unexpected introduction to research:

“I went to the University of Illinois for college and at the time I didn’t have any grand goals. However, I took a course in Biology and John Drake said, ‘Gee, would you like to try some research?’ I didn’t do very well, honestly, but I got the bug.”

As it turns out, that research “bug” earned Lindquist the honor of receiving the nation’s most prestigious scientific award.

Lindquist’s work was highlighted “for her studies of protein folding [the process by which a protein is arranged into its three dimensional structure because of internal bonding interactions], demonstrating that alternative protein conformations and aggregations can have profound and unexpected biological influences, facilitating insights in fields as wide-ranging as human disease, evolution, and biomaterials.”

The National Medal of Science was created in 1959 by Congress. Awarded annually by the National Science Foundation for the White House, the Medal was created to recognize “individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the biological, behavioral/social, and physical sciences, as well as chemistry, engineering, computing, and mathematics.”

President Obama extolled the achievements of this year’s recipients. “Their achievements have redrawn the frontiers of human knowledge while enhancing American prosperity,” he said.

Lindquist’s ground-breaking research in protein folding has shown that varied protein conformations can yield unexpected effects in fields ranging from human disease to evolution. Among many accomplishments, her lab has developed yeast models to better understand protein-folding transitions in neurodegenerative diseases and to test possible therapeutic strategies.

After hearing the news of her selection, Lindquist, a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and an MIT biology professor, was “absolutely thrilled — just immensely excited.”

Finding her way as a woman in science

Like many success stories, Lindquist’s was not without hardship. Pursuing research at a time when women were seldom found in science, Lindquist recounted her evolution as a scientist, starting from her days as a graduate student in the PhD program at Harvard University in 1976.

“As a graduate student I was just so excited about the world of molecular biology. It was such a thrilling time to be involved in science but at the same time, it was rather a bleak time in terms of women. I never even hoped to have my own lab one day. My imagination was that I was going to be working in the corner of some man’s laboratory.”

Then, her research took a turn for the better. Lindquist says that she “was lucky enough to get into some new exciting areas in science. And slowly, slowly I began to believe in myself. I have been absolutely thrilled that I was so lucky and fortunate to find myself at a major turning point in biological science and that happened to be a time for turning point for women.”

Subsequently, opportunities came in abundance and funding fell into place. Soon after, Lindquist became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, which allowed her to do “high risk and high payoff research.” Leaving the University of Chicago in 2001 after 23 years, Lindquist became the director of the Whitehead Institute, a position she held until 2004. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997, the National Academy of Sciences in 1997, and the Institute of Medicine in 2006.

While science was a significant part of her life, Lindquist credited her two daughters, Eleanora and Alona, and her husband as the complementing aspect that made her who she is. For the budding women scientists at MIT and beyond, Lindquist emphasized the importance of balancing family and science and finding a supportive partner that nurtures their passion for science.

“If I had to sacrifice having a family for science, I would have been miserable. A woman who contemplates science and family needs to get a supportive partner like mine. My husband felt that I loved what I was doing, and his belief in me helped me to make my scientific dreams come true.”

Lindquist also highlighted her experience at MIT, by saying, “I can’t believe how wonderful it is at MIT. Students, postdocs, and colleagues are all so amazing. Ideas are embraced and the environment is just so creative and entrepreneurial.”

Though the atmosphere within MIT may be inspirational, Lindquist stressed that as members of the MIT community, we have an obligation to use our talents and opportunities to better society and rejuvenate science education for younger generations. “There was something about MIT, and that was the spirit of mentorship. You want to see that the visions that you have are translated into making a difference in the world for people. It was this aspect and the entrepreneurial spirit that resonated with me.”

Lindquist will receive the medal from President Obama at a White House Ceremony on November 17. Lindquist is one of six current members of the MIT faculty to have received the National Medal of Science.