Oral history interview with Lee Ann Niswander

  • 2000-May-15
  • 2000-May-17 – 2000-May-18

Lee Ann Niswander was born in Bluffton, Ohio, the fourth child of six. Her parents were moderately devout Mennonites until her father's job caused them to move to Okemos, Michigan, where they became Methodists. Both parents were musical and they taught their children to be musical as well (the family won an award in a national musical contest). Lee Ann loved school, especially mathematics and science, in both of which she did well. When she was in high school she worked with disabled people, and she began Western Michigan University intending to major in special education. Finding that boring she moved to Colorado, where she worked on dude ranches for a few years before matriculating at the University of Colorado. She wanted to take her degree in chemistry, but she discovered that she enjoyed her biology classes as well. Still not sure that she wanted to go to medical school, but not knowing what else she could do, she finished college and applied to the Peace Corps. Although she was accepted and assigned to Lesotho, she decided not to go. Instead she worked as a technician at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center for four years before deciding to go back to school. During these four years she also obtained a Master's degree and met her future husband, Richard Davis. When Davis decided to accept a postdoc at Case Western Reserve University, Lee Ann applied to and was accepted into a PhD program in developmental biology at Case Western. There she worked in two Drosophila labs, one with Anthony Mahowald; then she went to Terry Magnuson's lab to work on mouse genetics. She also spent three months in Sweden, learning microdissection and microcloning; she was working on a phenotype that arises from a deletion of a part of mouse chromosome 7 and that has an early embryonic phenotype during gastrulation. When she finished her PhD she and Davis married and went to the University of California at San Francisco, where Lee Ann had a postdoc in Gail Martin's lab. There her project involved FGF-4. From California Niswander and her husband moved to New York City, where she accepted an assistant member position at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In addition to the Pew grant she has also won a Howard Hughes Medical Institute award and has been promoted to associate member at Sloan-Kettering. As a PI, she has three major projects in her lab: limb development in the chick embryo; neural tube patterning, or why there are different types of neurons along the dorsal-ventral axis in the neural tube; and feather bud development. She also is co-director and a teacher of a developmental biology course the cell biology course at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. In summers she co-teaches a section of a course in embryology with John Saunders at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Lee Ann continues to publish, to teach, to experiment, to seek funding, and to attempt to balance all this with her family life.

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