Trudi Schüpbach and Eric Wieschaus: A shared passion for nature’s truth  pg. 4

Eric at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg in 1979, where he did his Nobel Prize-winning work.
Photo courtesy of Trudi Schüpbach, Ph.D.
There were few early indicators that either Wieschaus or Schüpbach was destined for scientific greatness.  Schüpbach liked math as a girl, but thought it too boring for a career. “I chose science because there were so many open problems,” she explains, her voice accented with the lilting charm of Switzerland.

While at university, however, Schüpbach found only two role models for a woman aiming at a career in science. “One woman was in botany and one was in physics,” she recalls. “They were workaholics and not married, so they didn’t really set an example that a woman could be a scientist and have a family. It was hard then, but it’s different now.”

Schüpbach has hastened that difference by advising woman graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who want a family and a career in science. “They come and talk to me about when is the best time to have kids, or whether to even have kids,” she says.

Role models of a geekier sort influenced Wieschaus’ career path. Neither of his parents was a scientist and he had never considered a science career, until he attended a summer science camp at the University of Kansas between his junior and senior years of high school. “It was perfect for a nerdy high school kid like me to hang out with other nerds,” he recalls with a laugh.

While a sophomore biology major at Notre Dame, Wieschaus earned much-needed money by washing bottles and fixing fly food in the Drosophila laboratory run by Professor Harvey Bender.  There he encountered his first fruit flies and learned basic genetics.

“I like genetics – it’s solid,” Wieschaus asserts. “You do it and you learn something right there. And Harvey Bender showed me it was possible to have a good life as a scientist. I thought ‘Yes! This is life for me.’ It wouldn’t be weird, it would be perfect.”

Wieschaus completed his postdoctoral work in Zurich in 1978, then got his first taste of life as an independent scientist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. Best of all, Nüsslein-Volhard was also working at EMBL. The pair at last could discover how the Drosophila egg developed into a segmented embryo.

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