Susan Lindquist Drops the Mic and Leaves the Room
My last meal with Susan Lindquist was almost a exactly year ago. She had just received one of my university’s highest prizes – The Vanderbilt Prize given annually to an outstanding female biomedical researcher. Susan was an expert in cell biology. She was a pioneer in thinking about how proteins acted in very ‘unprotein’ like ways. How proteins could change generationally seemingly without genetic influence and how stress and drugs could be used to regulate proteins and cell survival.
When receiving her prize, Susan gave what many will know as her ‘soapbox’ talk, featuring her naive early vision of how proteins might interact (a lovely Ethel Merman synchronizing swimming routine), compared to how she later believed they truly functioned (cue a clip of a horrifically overcrowded wave pool filled with people smashing into one another). Her talk pulled together parts of genetics and cell biology and mercilessly pounded home an essential message to trainees: things in biology don’t work the way we think they do and nothing is easy. Yet amongst this messy wave pool of science, Susan’s career carved a path of clarity that has influence they way we think about cancer, Alzheimers and too many other diseases to count.
Susan’s talk was mesmerizing, and I was a fangirl who had enjoyed it all before. I was the best kind of fangirl. One removed enough from her work to simply admire it without knowing the backbreaking labor, politics and heartache that went with each eloquent publication.
Susan was on her game last fall making news of her death this week all the more stunning. She looked and sounded to me very much like someone who had big plans for women in academia, translational medicine and her lab. She simply had too much to do to be dead.
I have struggled in the past few days to remember some hint of Susan being ill or slowing down, but I opted to not stay in that space. Instead, I’ll share a story from the last time I saw Susan, at her award diner, in the hopes it resonates with others who knew her far better than I did.
The dinner was hosted by one of the nicest men in science, our dean or vice chancellor or something of basic science research. The man is a prince. I’ve never heard him swear, seen him angry, and he is insanely kind. He is also an older white man at a scientific institution in the south bravely handing out an award to a woman at a time when the discussions around how women in science are treated are contentious at best. Giving this award to Susan and having her speak about women in science was a particularly brave (and possibly insane) act.
The dinner guests were largely male, save myself, a senior female faculty member and the graduate student who was selected to be paired with Susan. As we sat down, I reintroduced myself to Susan who, much to my amazement, remembered me. She reached out and touched my arm and asked if I was still working on restoring protein homeostasis and saving cells following stroke. I smiled broadly, realizing she really remembered me, and enthusiastically told her that yes, I was working still working on that. “You know,” she said looking upwards at nothing in particularly before leveling her gaze at me, “that’s a terrible idea.” She then she broke into this lopsided smile as she hugged my arm tighter and laughed. “Yes. Yes, it is a terrible idea,” I assured her that I knew. She then set about trying to convince me that the real challenges were in Alzheimer’s and chronic neurodegenerative diseases, and I needed to leave my acute stress and chaperones behind and follow her lead. I politely declined and she smiled and whispered, “Good for you. I didn’t listen either.” Of course, telling me I was working on absolutely the wrong thing in front of my boss was, in her mind, a huge favor.
Her hilarious insights into life and science were best taken with wine. When I asked her about what she meant when she said she had particular struggles pulling in venture capital money to seed her work, she said, ‘because venture capital is bastion of men with huge amounts of money and no amount of respect for women – they hate us, exclude us and make it miserable.’ Totally matter of fact. Like she was telling me what the weather was. People don’t want to invest in women because they hate having them in the boys club. The only noise that could be heard was Susan cutting up her food and eating.
My last dinner with Susan was probably like so many other people’s dinner’s with Susan. Not for the faint of heart, brutally honest about her experience and trying to help. She left me that night with a huge and sincere hug, responded promptly the next day when I asked her for some help and told me to keep up with my work because she thought I made a good case for it after all.