Susan L. Lindquist – Personal Profile Forever Tango with Science

October 15, 2001

Whitehead Director Susan Lindquist loves to tango. An avid ballroom dancer, who can do the two-step or the waltz, Lindquist likes the Argentine tango best.

“That’s because the music is complex, and you don’t memorize the steps but link together many ‘elements’ in constantly changing ways. The step and the beat are instinctive not formulaic, and you become one with the music and develop your own style,” says Lindquist.

Lindquist could very well be talking about the other love of her life–science. Lindquist can’t remember a time when she hasn’t been in love with science, especially the biological sciences. Her first recollection of being smitten dates back to fifth grade and to Mrs. Davis at Oreole Park, a teacher who took Lindquist’s breath away with this question at the beginning of class: “What is life?”

“That was the most amazing and fascinating question to me,” says Lindquist. “I began thinking about it and realized that biology provides us some of the answers and there was much that needed to be discovered and learned.”

Lindquist who was being raised in Chicago by first generation American–Swedish and Italian–parents. “I grew up in a tremendously loving family and enjoyed a warm family life. But my parents’ view of ‘what is life’ for women consisted of getting a good education, getting married, having a family, and staying home with them,” says Lindquist.

Lindquist is in fact married and has a family—two teenage daughters, 12 and 14. She credits her husband and daughters with creating the bedrock support that helps her excel at her science and providing each new day with a fresh perspective. But right from the start, Lindquist knew that she also wanted something more—a career that would help her answer fascinating questions about the science of life.

Medical school seemed like the natural way to go, and Lindquist planned to do just that. But during college one summer, Jan Drake, professor of biology at University of Illinois, invited her to work in the lab. “It never occurred to me that I could do that while I was still learning the science,” says Lindquist. “It was hard work, but I had never had so much fun in my life.” Lindquist considers working in Drake’s lab turning point number two.

In addition, the experience brought home for Lindquist the fact that young students can be inspired into careers in science with the right kind of teaching and mentoring. These experiences have made Lindquist a strong supporter of science education and a believer in proactive efforts to attract women into science.

After working with Drake and receiving her BA, Lindquist pursued her scientific career with relentless drive. The demands of college, graduate school at Harvard, and postdoctoral study at the University of Chicago didn’t slow her down nor did it dampen her enthusiasm for the field. After the postdoctoral fellowship, Lindquist became an assistant professor of biology at the University of Chicago. She was promoted to associate professor of biology in 1984, and became a full professor in 1988, the same year she was named an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

For a long time Lindquist was reluctant to leave the Windy City where her entire circle of family, friends, and mentors live. “It’s hard to pull up stakes and move to a new town when you have a community,” she says.

Lindquist says she made an exception for Whitehead because of the unique opportunities it offered her.

“The size and culture of the Whitehead Institute offer me the ability to function in a leadership role in a non-bureaucratic setting and allow me to maintain an active research program,” says Lindquist, pointing out that there’s precedence to show it can be done. Her predecessors, Gerald Fink and David Baltimore, both ran thriving research programs and published groundbreaking research during their tenure as directors.

“I was also struck by the vibrancy at the Whitehead,” says Lindquist. “The extraordinary quality of science, the camaraderie, and the supportive environment of the Institute won me over. It’s wonderful to find so many good people, doing cutting-edge science in one place,” she says.

A lover of music and theater, Lindquist is looking forward to taking advantage of the cultural diversity, art, and music in the Boston area—and of course, to finding a place to tango.


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