Digital Collections

Oral history interview with Susan M. Parkhurst

  • 1996-Dec-14 – 1996-Dec-16

Susan M. Parkhurst was born in Tacoma, Washington, but raised in California, Alaska, North Carolina, and Colorado (where she attended high school), the second oldest of seven siblings. Both of her parents were in the U. S. Air Force (hence the travel)—her mother a radar officer, her father an airplane mechanic—though later in life, when Parkhurst was in high school, both of her parents went to college to obtain degrees. She was an avid reader and she played the flute, the bassoon, and the glockenspiel either in her school's marching band or in its orchestra. While she excelled in school, her education was also somewhat disrupted by the moves to various states, such that she never had a class in geometry but repeated some classes due to the different structures of state educational systems. While in high school she also participated in Explorers, which focused, in part, on seeing medical professionals at work. Although not entirely certain of what career she wanted to pursue, Parkhurst matriculated at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, starting on the pre-medical track. She recalled that her first two years at the institution were fraught with being in classes more advanced than the training she had in high school (like starting in Calculus III instead of Calculus II), most of which required rote learning, though once she began her junior year and started taking graduate-level classes in her field, which required thoughtful intellectual expression, that all changed. Also, she profited from an inspirational developmental biology class with Allen Shearn, who became a mentor, and from a friendship with a graduate student, Suki Parks, who provided guidance. While she worked a number of different jobs as an undergraduate, many during the summers, she felt fortunate to work for a Veterans Administration hospital studying nosocomial infections and to be an undergraduate teaching assistant. Having decided to pursue a graduate education in science rather than medicine, Parkhurst applied to various schools around the country but, with support from Shearn and Philip E. Hartman, she was allowed to continue at Hopkins. At Hopkins she rotated through Eric A. Fyrberg and Yuan Chuan Lee's labs and settled into the lab of Victor G. Corces for her doctoral research on suppression mechanisms, ultimately succeeding in the cloning of the suppressor of hair-wing locus. Parkhurst wanted to broaden her scientific background and chose to undertake a postdoctoral position abroad in the David Ish-Horowicz lab at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. After spending some time on transregulators and transposable elements, her work on hairy-wing led to the discovery of how to count chromosomes for sex determination and the transduction of sex-determining signals by helix-loop-helix proteins, which, in turn, led to a study of mutations in pattern formation in Drosophila and screens for early development mechanism suggesting the presence of an unknown bicoid-like gene for anterior/posterior patterning. Parkhurst then returned to the United States, taking a second postdoctoral position with Howard D. Lipshitz at the California Institute of Technology before accepting a principal investigator position at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. The interview concludes with Parkhurst's thoughts on the ways in which her lab brings heterogeneous methods to the study of developmental genetics; on her commitment to mentoring lab personnel; and on the status of women in the sciences. She ends the interview discussing her efforts to encourage women and minorities in the sciences; Harold M. Weintraub's contribution to intellectual life at Hutchinson; the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences and the benefits of attending the Pew annual meetings; relationships between basic research institutions and pharmaceutical companies; gene patents; and her excitement about doing science.

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