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Faces of Penn State, 2002: Nina Fedoroff

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Evan Pugh Professor of Life Sciences and the Verne M. Willaman Chair in Life Sciences


In addition to examining the genes that enable a plant to fight off disease and environmental pollutants, Nina Fedoroff serves on several prestigious national boards and committees.

Years at Penn State : 7, as of 2002

Professional background: Penn State (1995-present, professor); Johns Hopkins University (1978-1995, professor); Carnegie Institution of Washington (1978-1995, staff member); University of California and Carnegie Institution of Washington (1975-77, National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow; 1974-75, Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell postdoctoral fellow); University of California (1972-74, acting assistant professor)

Academic background: Doctoral degree in molecular biology, The Rockefeller University (1972); Bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry (1966)

Fall 2002—Nina Fedoroff demurs at the mention of the two Penn State honorary titles that precede her name – Willaman Professor of Life Sciences and now, Evan Pugh Professor.

“It's a bit embarrassing – too much for one person,” she says. “I wasn’t looking for titles. They’ve just kind of fallen on me.”

While modesty may do in polite conversation, Fedoroff is far too intelligent to have let those hard-earned titles lie fallow. “People are just a little more willing to take you seriously with that heft behind you,” she says. “I can accomplish more things because it is easier to coax or influence people to be cooperative. That’s what the titles are good for.”

Not that she needs the help. Her research accomplishments stand for themselves. In the 1980s, Fedoroff brought plant transposons into the molecular age by cloning the mobile elements originally discovered by the famous geneticist Barbara McClintock. Today, Fedoroff examines the genes that enable a plant to fight off disease and environmental pollutants. Plants react to both non-biological stresses, like ozone, and biological stresses, like disease organisms. The reaction produces protective compounds that strengthen the entire plant in the event of another attack.

To understand the response process, Fedoroff tries to single out the genes that are “turned on” when the plant reacts and studies how they are activated using a new DNA microarray method for gene expression profiling. Her goal is to find out which genes control other genes and how they do it. That knowledge could unlock the secret to helping geneticists give plants the resilience to weather environmental assaults.

Fedoroff credits parenting for training her to cope with the many demands on her time posed by her laboratory and administrative commitments, including serving on the National Science Board , the boards of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Sigma-Aldrich Company, and chairing the Publications Committee of the National Academy of Sciences. “I think it comes from having raised kids as a single parent. You just get really good at layering your time and at parallel processing,” she says.

Fedoroff still taps into parallel processing during the snippets of time she snatches to indulge in personal pursuits. “I like to read and make yogurt. I enjoy movies and theater,” she says.

And, despite investing mountains of time researching plants, she still likes “to dig around in my garden. I encouraged the person who put my garden together to be very imaginative.”

And if those hobbies do not quite drain away the stresses of her hectic professional life, there’s always Monday nights. That’s when Fedoroff sings with the State College Choral Society.

“Sometimes the music is wonderful,” she says. “We’re performing the Brahms Requiem. Now that is a piece of music to die for. Going and singing your heart out for two hours on Monday nights is great.”

Andy Elder

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