A ciência pelos olhos da Profª. Drª. Lee Niswander

Publicado por Giovana Maria Breda Veronezi em

Dr. Lee Niswander. Personal photo collection.

Science through the eyes of Dr. Lee Niswander

In today’s interview that I’m bringing for the Science Through Her Eyes‘ blog, I had the pleasure to talk to one of the biggest names in the Developmental Biology field, Dr. Lee Niswander.

Dr. Niswander is a Principal Investigator (PI) and Chair of the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Department at the University of Colorado  – Boulder. She graduated in Chemistry at the same institution, and obtained her Master’s degree in Biochemistry and Genetics at the University of Colorado Health Sciences.

Dra. Niswander in Snowbird, Utah, between former and current members of her lab when she was President of the Society for Developmental Biology. Personal photo collection.

Later on, she completed her Doctorate in Genetics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and Post Doctorate in Developmental Biology at the University of California, San Francisco. 

She became a faculty member at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Professor at Cornell University Medical School in New York City. She then returned to Colorado and became Section Head of Developmental Biology in Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and was President of the Society for Developmental Biology, before her current position.

Dr. Niswander has done extensive research on the molecular basis of fundamental developmental processes and major birth defects in humans. Her lab is currently focused on birth defects originating from failure of the neural tube closure, such as the spina bifida.

Niswander Lab Shining: Dr. Niswander and lab members at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO, where “The Shining” was written by Stephen King. Red arrowheads mark the “ghosts” floating around. Personal photo collection.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic limitations, we set up a virtual meeting. I was very excited for the opportunity and at the same time a bit nervous about it, as it would be my first time conducting an “in person” interview. 

She received me in her office, to which she was going back for the first time in a few months, with a welcoming smile and lots of charisma. My nervousness quickly went away, making space for a very pleasant and inspiring conversation that I’m happy to share here with you.

Scientist. Was that what you wanted to be when you grew up?

I guess yes, but a different type of scientist. When I was in 7th grade I totally wanted to be an archaeologist. I would go out in the back fields and do digs and things like that. Later I thought about being an architect and I still love landscaping. 

When I was in college, at the University of Colorado Boulder, I was in chemistry and I worked in a chemistry lab doing research. Even then I actually didn’t have any idea that I could be more than a technician, even though I loved doing science and I knew I was really good at it. Because there weren’t women role models, I really didn’t realize I could do it as a career.

It really wasn’t until I met Dick [Dr. Richard E. Davis, Professor at the University of Colorado – Anschutz and Dr. Niswander’s husband] that I came to that realization. I was a technician and he was a postdoc and he asked me “Why don’t you go to graduate school?” to which I questioned “I could go to graduate school?”. 

Originally I thought I wanted to go to medical school and I remember when I told my mom about it. Now she feels so bad about it, but back then she advised me that I should be a nurse instead of a doctor. But Dick was really the one that pushed me to graduate school and I thought ok, I guess I could.

Did any scientist or scientific discovery inspire you in choosing this career?  Or even when you wanted to be an archaeologist, what drove you to think about that? 

I don’t even remember why I thought being an archaeologist would be cool, but somehow I got into that. But later I think it was probably more in deciding what field of research I wanted to do that really inspired me, and that was a bit random. 

I actually started my graduate work at the University of Colorado – Anschutz. It wasn’t Anschutz at the time but the University of Colorado Health Sciences, and I was in Bob Sclafani’s lab. Dick was looking to move, he had had some other job offers,  and we went to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. I ended up getting my Master’s degree with Bob. When I moved to Case Western I was thinking about what topic I really wanted to explore.

I had gotten into the Molecular Biology graduate program but I had also gotten into the Developmental Biology graduate program, and the decision between both was very random. It was something like “I know Molecular Biology, I’ve already done that, I don’t know anything about Development, I’ll do that!”. 

So I did and then I became totally inspired. And there’s a lot of women, wonderful women scientists in the development biology field. I would say if you name the top 20 developmental biologists, a huge proportion of them would be women, actually.  

I don’t know why that field has nurtured so many great women scientists, but it has, and I got to know a lot of those really great prominent women scientists very early on in my graduate career. 

My thesis mentor was a male scientist, Terry Magnuson, and he was just awesome and he knew everybody. He introduced me to a lot of the people in the field and we just became friends, even when I was this tiny little graduate student. 

These scientists were prominent but the field was pretty small at the time and I just found my place. So overall it was all my graduate mentor just being a superb person and scientist and then all these other great women scientists who nurtured me along the way.

You mentioned having a lot of women in the field and it’s also remarkable to me how in your own lab there are many women that you have mentored, and still do. Do you feel like, since you started your lab, you have always had women interested in your field of work or do you feel like it grew more along the time?

No, it has been pretty consistent all along that we tended to have more women than men. It has always been pretty much split between graduate students and postdocs, but within that mix it does tend to run 60% women. 

I’ve thought about it a lot myself, why did Developmental Biology resonate with me? Is it the field? Is it me? I think it’s probably a combination of both, and having great women role models. 

To me, Developmental Biology is a puzzle. I find Molecular Biology by itself boring. It’s more in vitro and while you can look for protein interactions and other things, it’s not very complex, whereas to me Developmental Biology takes everything that we know and brings it together into a whole. 

We’re not just looking at a receptor and how it interacts with a ligand, instead we look at how that sits on the cell, transduces the signal and tells that cell to do something to communicate with the cell next to it, and then how all of those cells come together.

To me it’s a much bigger, more rich, more complex problem, and I love puzzles. I think in part that’s why I do really like it.

Besides having mentored many women, you have also had a lot of them who are now Assistant Professors or Principal Investigators (PIs), which is really amazing.

Yes, I am really proud.

What do you think was essential in your role as a mentor to help them in their path? 

I firmly believe that my path isn’t the only path. If people have other aspirations, so long as it’s science related, I don’t care actually what that path might be and I will help you to get along that path in my best way possible. 

On one hand, I had more experience in helping to mentor people along the academic path, obviously, so when people say that they want to go into industry or something I think that is great, but I don’t have a lot of contacts. I will work with their goals rather than putting my goals to people.

I won’t try to say “You’re so good at science, why don’t you just stay in academia?” if that’s not their passion. There are a lot of PI’s that will feel like that person has failed them if they don’t do what they do, and I don’t believe in that at all.

A lot of it is due to your ability to create a supportive environment.

Exactly. I try to get the best out of everybody and I’m not a micromanager by any means. I am there to support and give independence. I never wanted to be micromanaged and I’m not going to micromanage somebody else.

I had this colleague, he was maybe 5 years senior to me when I started my first faculty position, who said once “the best thing that I can tell you is you cannot motivate by example”. It doesn’t matter how hard I work, it doesn’t matter how hard your labmate works, if you’re not motivated yourself, I can’t make you do something. That’s not going to do you any good in the long run because ultimately you will have to stand on your own two feet. So, in some ways I am probably a little more hands-off than maybe I should be, but I’m always there to support people, whatever that may be. 

So why did so many of my mentees go on to academia? I’ve been lucky I’ve been able to mentor some really great people in my lab. I’ve been lucky to be able to have really good motivated people come, and if you’re motivated you can do pretty much anything you want.

Now about your career, have you ever faced any difficulties as a scientist for being a woman?

I think I was lucky in two ways. First, a cultural shift was starting to happen. Like I said, there were no women role models, especially in chemistry, so I didn’t know what my path could be. But by the time I got to that point of starting into a faculty career, there was a good recognition in terms of “this is not right and we need to have more women [as faculty]“, so I do think that that was to my advantage.

For instance, I don’t do this anymore probably because I’m more prominent now – I always go by “Lee”, but when I was applying for jobs I’d put “Lee Ann” because otherwise they’d think I was a guy. See, I can take it either way, if I don’t want to be known as a woman I can put Lee, and I usually go by “Lee”, but if I want to be known as a woman then I’ll write “Lee Ann”.

Maybe another advantage is that it was also a golden time for developmental biology. There was a lot of historical Developmental studies going on but with all the molecular tools becoming available, you could finally put genes and functions to the historical findings. 

I think that those two things actually helped a lot in landing a job as a good Developmental Biologist, as a good Molecular Biologist, and as a woman. So, if anything it was more of a help than a hindrance.

I would say in getting to graduate school perhaps it was more of a hindrance just because I couldn’t recognize for myself what I could do, but once I got into graduate school, postdoc and later, it hasn’t been a problem. But then, also like I said, it was a good time. I had great papers and I became recognized for me and the research that we did and so my trajectory has always been uphill, thankfully.

Unfortunately it’s not uncommon the stories of women have had to hide their first name and sign their initials to not be recognized as women so they’d have their work actually accepted or recognized, and I find it really amazing that you made the change actually to be recognized as a woman.

Yes, but if it had been 5, 10 years earlier, I don’t think I would have done that. Probably I would have just put it as “Lee”, I probably would not have wanted to add my middle name to it. So, there definitely was a cultural shift, and a recognition that all things can’t just be done by old white guys.

Going from one field in which there was basically no women that was Chemistry to one field with a majority of women that was Developmental Biology, did you feel a difference between them? 

Before the cultural shift happened, I perceived that there was a feeling in older generations of women in Developmental Biology of having to sacrifice many things, and having to fight their way to the top, in a sense that it was somewhat expected for me to do it that way too.

I had many exceptionally good women mentors, but there was also a feeling of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, girl” and an expectation that you wouldn’t have a family and should constantly prove yourself because, back then, that was necessary for them to be respected.

So there definitely was a major shift that probably began in the late 80’s. I think there was a confluence of things, recognizing why there were so few women in science and the big Molecular Biology revolution. We could do things, we could clone genes, we could do all of these things that we couldn’t do before and, so, maybe that also made more space for people to do great science.

I feel fortunate to have had really great women and men mentors along my path and I’m proud to be a good mentor myself.

In conclusion, I will ask you to briefly describe Science through Lee’s eyes

Science is fun, science is discovery, science is so important nowadays. But to me it’s the fun of discovery, to be able to come to work and have the feeling that this is awesome and the best job in the world! It’s a lot of work but it is the best job in the world. Where else do you get to dream of your own thoughts and go on and test some?

I’d like to thank Dr. Niswander for kindly dedicating some of her time for us to talk and for sharing her inspiring trajectory.


Giovana Maria Breda Veronezi

Graduada em Ciências Biológicas pela Unicamp em 2014 e Mestra em Biologia Celular e Estrutural pela mesma universidade. Com o sonho de criança em ser Bióloga realizado, almeja na vida adulta ver a ciência (e o mundo) cada vez mais pelos olhos delas.

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