"Science is too much fun to not have the opportunity to do it"
Science is “too much fun to not have the opportunity to do it,” say Dr. Susan Celniker, PIT ’75. Dr. Celniker, Head of the Department of Genome Dynamics and Co-Director of the Berkeley Drosophila Genome Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, returned to Claremont in July 2013 to give a research talk as part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute summer program. She regularly presents her work at national and international conferences, in collaboration with scientists from around the globe. Her visit to Claremont provided an opportunity to talk with students and faculty about her current work as well as her experience at the Keck Science Department (formerly Joint Science Department) of Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges.
Dr. Celniker’s research focuses on genetic expression in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. During her talk, she explained that fruit flies and humans share approximately 70% of the same DNA, and understanding how certain genes are turned on or off can play a critical role in understanding organismal development. While most scientists work with a few genes, she is a genomicist and interested in the expression of all genes. Her work focuses on how a single-celled embryo, with a complete set of genes, starts to divide and create specialized cells that develop into separate organs such as the brain or the heart.
Dr. Celniker’s interest in biology and experience in genetics research started at Keck Science, through a team-taught biology course during her first year. She enrolled at Pitzer, declining an offer from UC Berkeley, because she was “looking for a more personal experience.” She intended to major in anthropology, but Keck Science courses strongly influenced her interests and led to a major in biology, which has been followed by a highly successful career as a world-renowned expert on gene expression.
“The courses were amazing,” says Dr. Celniker. “ (The) cell biology course was quite an experience. Half the course was spent reading original research papers from the scientific literature. We read six papers a week. Each paper was presented by a student called at random and one’s grade depended on whether you were prepared to present or not. Reading the literature was like reading a foreign language, and it was an intensive growth experience.”
Her senior thesis was supervised by Prof. David Sadava, who encouraged “the idea of independent study,” and had a profound influence on her career. Her thesis and lab work involved the study of sugar and its effects on chromosomal proteins and led to a job at the City of Hope, after which she attended graduate school at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, finishing her Ph.D. research at Caltech.
Dr. Celniker believes it is important to have a broad background, and as an undergraduate she enrolled in a number of courses outside core science. She recalls a multidisciplinary project at the Channel Islands with Keck Science professor Dan Guthrie and Pitzer anthropology professor Dave Thomas to study how the ancient native population used local marine resources such as abalone, gastropods and other shellfish. The project involved collecting shells and using computers, a state of the art practice in the early seventies, to perform data analysis.
Other memorable courses included a class in chemical glassblowing. She refers to Claremont faculty as “renaissance characters that thrive” in a liberal arts college environment. “Just take advantage of everything Claremont has to offer” is her advice to current Keck Science students. ”Get to know your faculty. Get lab experience. Work as a teaching assistant.” Research and teaching experience are typically limited to graduate students at research universities, she says, noting that science majors, whether they pursue employment or continue to graduate school, are at a great advantage if they have laboratory research experience.
Dr. Susan Celniker '75