Oral history interview with Hannele Ruohola-Baker

  • 2002-May-20 – 2002-May-21
  • 2002-May-27

Hannele Ruohola-Baker was born in Kullaa, Finland—a small farming village—the younger of two siblings. Her mother was a banker who always had an interest in learning, though did not have many opportunities for education earlier in her life. Ruohola-Baker spent much time with her maternal grandparents, since they lived nearby, and played with her older brother and his friends in the surrounding forests. She was always goal-oriented and did well in school; Finland had a very diverse educational system that provided equal education in all subjects (as much time was devoted to music as to science, for example). The local church was central to the community and informed much of Ruohola-Baker's early life. She matriculated at the University of Helsinki, where Ruohola-Baker developed an interest in the study of molecules. A dynamic biochemistry professor, Ossi Renkonen, intrigued her and introduced her to the practice of scientific research; she joined his lab and began work on studying particular carbohydrates in proteins. She received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Helsinki and decided to pursue graduate school abroad, ultimately entering Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. While transitioning to life in the United States and learning about American culture, Ruohola-Baker began her graduate research in Terry Platt's lab, but then moved into Susan Ferro-Novick's lab, developing an assay for cellular transport. As it turns out, David Baker, her future husband, was working on the same problem in Randy Schekman's lab at the University of California, Berkeley and both she and Baker developed the assay successfully on the same day. From Yale she went on to a brief visiting Fellowship at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, and to a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco with Yuh Nung and Lily Jan. Ruohola-Baker moved away from protein secretion into the field of developmental biology, studying Drosophila and oogenesis. From there, she and her husband accepted principal investigator positions at the University of Washington, Seattle. At the end of the interview she discusses her current research on cell polarity in Drosophila and possible applications of her research; the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding process; writing articles; balancing work and family responsibilities; and a typical workday. Ruohola-Baker concludes with thoughts on the nature of competition and collaboration in science; the national science agenda; the privatization of scientific research; gender issues and questions of race in science; and the impact of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award on her work.

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