MIT’s Susan Lindquist, 67, a pioneer in science
Through early experiments with fruit flies, and later with brewer’s yeast, Susan Lindquist showed how misshapen proteins in cells can lead to Alzheimer’s disease or cancer, and even provide a path for the evolution of new traits in organisms.
An intellectual explorer since childhood, she told the American Society for Cell Biology newsletter in 2004 that she “always had this abiding interest in nature. I remember when I was little, I had no interest in playing with dolls. I liked to go round the neighborhood collecting things — berries, dirt, insects — and then I would mix them all together to see what would happen.”
One of the most honored scientists in the nation, Dr. Lindquist died of cancer Thursday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. A biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was 67 and lived in Cambridge.
A National Medal of Science recipient, she was the first woman to lead the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge and one of the first women to head a research organization of that magnitude anywhere. “I have a lab full of people with children, and bless them — I love having all these children in my lab,” Dr. Lindquist said in a 2011 interview with Jane Gitschier. Through her leadership and example, she also played a key role in helping scientific labs evolve into places more welcoming to women.
“Sue simply saw no limits, she respected no bounds,” said Dr. David C. Page, her successor as director of the Whitehead Institute. “And that was in her scientific work and its potential, and by that I mean for fundamental discovery and treating disease. She looked at brewer’s yeast and saw a way to understand and treat neurodegenerative disease. Now, that’s not a common way of thinking.”
Dr. Lindquist received nearly every scientific award other than a Nobel Prize, and when she was honored with the 2008 Genetics Society of America Medal, the organization called her “a fearless biochemist, employing state of the art technologies and inventing new ones. . . . Her work has provided paradigm-shifting insights into the most basic aspects of cell biology, genetics, and evolution.”
“She did not want to do an experiment unless she thought it would deliver deep biological impact and make a difference to the world,” said Dr. Vikram Khurana, a scientific cofounder of the Cambridge startup Yumanity Therapeutics. Dr. Lindquist was the scientific founder of Yumanity, which secured $45 million in funding earlier this year for its research into illnesses including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Part of her legacy was how she fostered collaboration among scientists from disparate backgrounds, said Khurana, a neurologist who trained in her labs. “This tremendous empathy she had allowed her to connect with people from all walks of life and bring them together. Her passion, mixed with this empathy, created a magical place to work,” he said. “I can’t overemphasize how that unleashed and unlocked not only the creative potential of individuals, but the creative potential of the community.”
Born in Chicago, Dr. Lindquist was the daughter of Iver Lindquist, a contractor who later worked in tax preparation, and the former Eleanor Maggio, a homemaker who had been a secretary. Her parents were the children of Swedish and Italian immigrants and had not attended college. Though they valued education, they were surprised at the reach of their daughter’s scientific ambitions, which were inspired in part by a fifth-grade teacher. “She wrote a question on the blackboard, ‘What is life?’ and we tried to come up with ideas like ‘It moves’ or ‘It consumes oxygen,’ ” Dr. Lindquist recalled for a January profile in The Scientist. “That was such an electrifying moment for me.”
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which she received a scholarship to attend, an experience that fostered her strong support of public-funded colleges. Receiving a National Science Foundation grant after her junior year was a transitional moment. “I had worked as a waitress and at a fruit stand in the summer to pay for my dorm fees,” she told The Scientist. “And now I received a stipend for doing something I thought was fun.”
Accepted for graduate work at Harvard University and MIT, she chose the former and graduated with a doctorate in biology while beginning her early experiments on fruit flies. For postdoctoral work she went to the University of Chicago, where she joined the microbiology department faculty, switched to working with yeast, and ended up running her own lab. Her findings expanded the understanding of proteins, which fold into complex and elegant shapes and are the structural powerhouses of cells. When proteins misfold, they can wreak havoc.
During her career, Dr. Lindquist was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. She became director of the Whitehead Institute in 2001 and joined MIT’s faculty. She also had cofounded FoldRx Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge.
While in Chicago, she met Edward Buckbee, a teacher of French medieval literature who became a development officer for nonprofits. They married in 1984 and among other interests shared a love of dancing, including the tango. “I have the most wonderful husband who has been the biggest influence on my life and my professional success,” she told The Scientist. “We met on the dance floor at a ‘favorite professors’ party in a dorm at the University of Chicago. I deliberately wanted to find someone who was not working in my profession because I was interested in art and literature but had to drop a lot of that to focus on science.”
“We had a long and very happy life together,” said her husband, who added that “she was unbelievably dedicated to the possibilities of women in science, where women could have careers and families.”
They had two daughters, Nora Buckbee of Boston and Alana Buckbee of New York City. “She was the best mom,” Nora said.
Dr. Lindquist was also “one of the most amazing and creative people I’ve ever known and one of the most generous, loyal, and caring people I’ve ever known,” said Elaine Fuchs, the Rebecca C. Lancefield professor at The Rockefeller University in New York.
“She had an ability to realize that a finding she made might have tremendous implications for cancer or for neurodegenerative disease or evolution,” said Fuchs, who had been a University of Chicago colleague. “She made these visionary connections.”
In addition to her husband and two daughters, Dr. Lindquist leaves her two brothers, John of Evanston, Ill., and Alan of Oak Park, Ill.
Dr. Lindquist’s family will announce a celebration of her life and work.
“Aside from the science, nothing was more important to Susan than her trainees and knowing that generations of scientists and physicians have been touched by her work and are now going to continue her legacy,” said Khurana, who is part of the principal faculty at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the Ann Romney Center for Neurological Diseases.
Little more than a week ago he visited Dr. Lindquist along with his wife, Chee Yeun Chung, a Yumanity scientific cofounder who had been a post-doc in her lab. “When my wife thanked her for all she had done for women in science, Susan wept,” Khurana said. “Her last words to us were, ‘Always think about how you want to be remembered.’ ”