Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Where is she now? Mary-Dell Chilton

Scientific American is running a series profiling past Westinghouse (now Intel) Science talent Search finalists and winners. This week their focus is on Mary-Dell Chilton, who was a finalist in 1956 for "building a long telescope in a short tube." She was interested in pursuing astronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but was discouraged from enrolling in astronomy courses.

"As a young female student, I had a hard time being taken seriously in those days," she says. Rebuffed by astronomy, she said, "The hell with that," and "never went back." She majored in physics but fell asleep in lectures and so switched to chemistry to finish her undergraduate degree.
In graduate school she found an interest in the fledgling field of molecular biology, writing her dissertation on bacterial transformation, followed by postdoctoral research at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Indeed, after her postdoc, because she was married to a professor in the chemistry department, she took a temporary job in U.W.'s microbiology department rather than trying to rise through the ranks somewhere else. "I thought to myself, at least I have the advantage of being a woman," she says. "My husband is the breadwinner, so I can just do what is interesting. I don't have to have a high-paying job."
Her research interests lead to a study of Agrobacterium - bacteria that infect plants. She and her colleagues found that Agrobacterium transfers DNA between itself and the genome of the infected plant. '' They further found that the disease-causing genes could be removed and the DNA transfer would still occur, leading to methods that produced the first transgenic plants.
Today [. . .] it's clear that Chilton's work revolutionized plant science. Although genetic modification is sometimes controversial, "the fact that it's possible scientifically and technically is amazing," says Philip Hammer, vice president of Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, which awarded Chilton the Franklin Institute Award in Life Science in 2002. "What she did is incredibly important in our understanding of genetics and relationships between bacteria and plants and bacteria and other organisms."
In 1979 she took a faculty position at Washington University in St. Louis, and four years later left academia to work for what is now Syngenta Corporation in North Carolina. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1985.

Chilton no longer works on company projects, and once again has the freedom to tinker in the lab.
"I work on what amuses me." Currently, this is gene targeting—telling the DNA where to go in the plant genome. No one knows if any useful technology will be developed from this idea, but Chilton is still having such fun that she has no plans to retire. "Not as long as I can get up and go to the lab," she says.
That sounds like a great way to do science.

Image: SBI Distinguished Scientist: Mary-Dell Chilton
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