Susan Lindquist (1949–2016)

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Science  25 Nov 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6315, pp. 974
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal3609

On 27 October, Susan Lee Lindquist, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), died of cancer at the age of 67. She was a formidable academic leader, dedicated mentor, beloved friend, and devoted wife and mother who will be deeply missed. Susan was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1949 to parents of Swedish and Italian ancestry. This rich blend of genes and cultures was reflected in her ability to balance the dramatic against the carefully reasoned. She earned a bachelor's degree in microbiology at the University of Illinois in 1971, followed by a doctorate in biology from Harvard University in 1976. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago, she joined its molecular biology department and set about deciphering how cells regulate protein synthesis and folding. She recounted an environment far from supportive for women, yet she persisted and thrived. She ignored warnings that her career would flounder when she switched organisms or undertook difficult areas of study. Rather, she demonstrated an ability to choose the right questions at the right time and helped found the field of heat-shock biology.

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Susan Lindquist was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science by President Obama in 2009.


Susan accepted a joint appointment as professor of biology at MIT and director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in 2001. She shepherded an unprecedented partnership between MIT, Harvard University, and the Whitehead Institute in launching the Broad Institute for biomedical research. In 2004, she returned to full-time research at the Whitehead Institute but also had appointments at the Broad Institute and at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. During this chapter of her career, Susan concentrated on the biomedical implications of her work and transformed budding yeast into a model organism for studying evolution, biomaterials, and the cellular pathology of neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's, Huntington's, and Alzheimer's diseases. She also strove to apply basic scientific insights to the mission of improving human health. To do so, she co-founded FoldRx Pharmaceuticals and Yumanity Therapeutics to tackle neurodegenerative diseases caused by the pathogenetic misfolding of proteins.

Susan received many prestigious awards, including the U.S. National Medal of Science and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research. She was a Howard Hughes Investigator and an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the British Royal Society.

More important to Susan than the accolades were the people whom she helped train. During her 15-year career at the Whitehead Institute alone, she guided over 100 postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates to productive careers in research. Her trainees benefited from Susan's love of language, especially poetry, in a very direct way. Every manuscript was carefully crafted during many hours of writing sessions with her, finding just the right words and rendering complicated scientific concepts accessible to both specialists and a wider audience. For Susan, the process of doing the right experiments and doing them well provided essential raw material, but crisp, lucid communication was equally important. Several of her manuscripts on protein-based mechanisms of inheritance and their role in the evolution of organisms are already classics.

Susan valued the creative power of diversity: ethnicity, gender, age, training, and life experience. Basic and applied scientists, physicians, mathematicians, biologists, and chemists all had important contributions. She brought us together, guided us in asking the right questions, and picked us up when we fell down. She was invested in fostering the careers of women in science. She was a role model in balancing the demands of a productive career with a rewarding life outside the lab. Whether at the theater with her husband, Edward, or on a vacation getaway with him and their two daughters, nothing gave Susan greater joy than the love of her family.

Working with Susan was like setting out on a great expedition, finding surprising, serendipitous, and useful treasures along the way. For one of us (L.W.), the journey began on a bus ride from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory after a meeting. Her approachability and willingness to go beyond the boundaries of her scientific kingdom to a land where “there be dragons” led to a long partnership investigating molecular chaperones and the heat-shock response in human cancers. She was fascinated by the idea that the protein-based mechanisms of evolution in model organisms might fuel the malignant progression and drug resistance of cancers. For many of us, the journey was in the company of cherished colleagues—a generous, hard-driving, supportive, and creative community that mirrored the best qualities of our beloved mentor. And the journey was fun and joyful, perhaps never more so than when Susan tore up the dance floor each year at our Whitehead retreats.

Susan approached the ovarian cancer that killed her not as a reason to quit what she loved doing but rather as a scientific problem that needed to be investigated with every resource she could muster. It was a testament to the respect she had earned over the years to see both academic and corporate leaders rally to her cause with the invariable words “How can I help?” To these generous offers, Susan responded that she wanted insights gleaned from her tumor to help future women overcome this dreadful disease. Susan lived every day with the unshakable conviction that the misery caused by human diseases will ultimately yield to creative and determined scientific investigation. Despite all of her achievements, she felt that her work was still just taking off and beginning to deliver on its promise.

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