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Oral history interview with Judith White

  • 1989-Dec-13

Judith M. White grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When she was in junior high school, her family moved to Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. She is one of two children of an insurance agent and a school librarian. She did not have an interest in science until she got to high school, when she had good chemistry and physics teachers, but hated dissecting frogs in biology.

White chose Franklin and Marshall College in nearby Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and entered its first coeducational class; she majored in chemistry, the only woman in her class to do so. Carl Pike, her biology teacher and lab supervisor, inspired her interest in biology. She was able to spend two summers doing research, the first at University of Rochester, where she discovered membranes, and the second at Bryn Mawr College, where she worked in plant physiology. She also became active in backstage work in the theater.

For graduate school White chose the biophysics program at Harvard University, again the only woman in her class. She completed her thesis work in Don Wiley’s lab, intrigued by the ability of viruses to insert their DNAs into cells. During this time she also worked in Michael Waterfield’s lab at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, England. White enjoyed Ari Helenius’s work on membranes and chose his lab at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, for her postdoctoral work. Helenius’s lab eventually moved to Yale University, and White decided it was time to start her own lab.

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), recruited White to help build a cell biology program. She still focuses on membranes but with a broader scope that includes a virological/pharmacological perspective. While working on the Semliki Forest virus, White discovered the importance of pH in surface fusion or lack thereof. She feels that UCSF now has the best cell biology program on the West Coast.

White contrasts Wiley’s and Helenius’s management styles, and describes her own as “not hard-driving enough.” What they all have in common is their love of and enthusiasm for science. White loves bench work and tries to do as much as she can. She also likes mentoring and teaching students. White has numerous publications, but she believes that the number of one’s publications is a poor measure of ability as a scientist. White says she had positive and strong female role models, and believes a sense of humor is important. She advises students to talk with other scientists and not just to read books. She believes individual success is about doing one’s best, and to not feel victimized by circumstances. In her too-little spare time she still attends the theater.

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