By Luke Whitesell1 and Sandro Santagata2
On 27 October, Susan Lee Lindquist, professor at the Massachusetts In- stitute of Technology (MIT), died of cancer at the age of 67. She was a for- midable 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.
Susan accepted a joint appoint-
ment as professor of biology at MIT
and director of the Whitehead In-
stitute for Biomedical Research in
2001. She shepherded an unprec-
edented partnership between MIT,
Harvard University, and the White-
head Institute in launching the Broad Insti-
tute for biomedical research. In 2004, she
returned to full-time research at the White-
head 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 evolu-
tion, biomaterials, and the cellular pathol-
ogy of neurodegenerative disorders such as
Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Alzheimer’s
diseases. She also strove to apply basic scien-
tific insights to the mission of improving hu-
man 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 acco-
lades were the people whom she helped train.
During her 15-year career at the Whitehead
Institute alone, she guided over 100 postdoc-
toral fellows, graduate students, and under-
graduates 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 render-
ing 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 com-
munication was equally important. Several
of her manuscripts on protein-based mecha-
nisms of inheritance and their role in the evo-
lution 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. j
Susan Lindquist (1949–2016)
An unflappable biologist was an indomitable advocate
for brave and meaningful inquiry
1Whitehead Institute, Cambridge, MA, USA. 2Brigham and
Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
INSIGHTS | PERSPECTIVES
Susan Lindquist was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science by
President Obama in 2009.