Fuchs on the Future

Rockefeller University researcher Elaine Fuchs on being a woman in science and her contributions to the burgeoning field of reverse genetics

By The Scientist Staff | May 1, 2016

Elaine Fuchs pioneered the field of reverse genetics—studying proteins and learning what they do, and how they do it, in order to identify the genetic disease they cause when they malfunction.


Narrator: How do you go forward in reverse? Ask Elaine Fuchs. She created a field called reverse genetics that revolutionized the study of genetic disease.

Elaine Fuchs: At the time, researchers would identify a large family that had a inheritable trait that was passaged on to their offspring.

Narrator: Geneticists would study the DNA of unhealthy family members, compare that to the DNA of healthy family members, and try to find differences that may or may not have been the source of the disease.

Elaine Fuchs: So, they would use that information to then do what I consider quite boring science at the time. And that was to slog through megabases of DNA and try to find a needle in the haystack.

I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be nice if you could just start with the protein?’

Narrator: Proteins are critical molecules in our cells. And each protein has a different job, like cellular structural support and defense against germs.

Fuchs began to disrupt the proteins in skin cells and then implant those mutated proteins in mice to see what skin abnormalities might development.

Elaine Fuchs: That's what we call reverse genetics, starting with the protein and working your way up to a genetic disease rather than starting with the disease and working your way down to the protein.

We engineered a mouse to express our mutant protein and let the mouse pathology guide us to what disease the human must have.

So, when I first presented this work at a scientific meeting, the chairman took the microphone and said, "I don't know what disease you've got, but it's certainly not the one that you think it is. And this to me just seems like really ridiculous science. I think we should move on."

And the audience was silent. Nobody spoke up. One woman finally stood up in the audience and said, "I think you should give this woman a chance."

And it was six months later that we proved we had been right in our diagnosis.

Narrator: Fuchs not only solved what caused the skin disease, she forever changed genetic science, an impressive achievement for a small-town girl.

Elaine Fuchs: I was born in Downers Grove, Illinois, just southwest of Chicago. My aunt and my father both majored in science. My aunt was denied medical school. She always, I think, felt that this was unfair.

Narrator: Fuchs came of age at a time when women were beginning to break through barriers, but the young Elaine didn't get swept up in the feminist movement.

It wasn't until many years later after she'd already been appointed to the faculty of the University of Chicago that she began to consider the impact her gender had on her science.

Elaine Fuchs: I was out to dinner with my aunt. She asked me whether I ever felt discriminated against in my work, in my science.

And I said, "No, not me." And then I started to think back and realized that, when I was in school, I used to play the dumb blonde. I felt that, by being smart and being female, that that…I would never get a date.

And then when I was in college, I remember being in a physics class with 200 guys and three women. On examinations, I thought, ‘If I did reasonably well, the professor would think that I was cheating. Whereas if I got the best grade in the class, the professor could never question that I was cheating.’

Narrator: Fuchs received a Bachelor of Science degree with the highest distinction in the chemical sciences and went on to graduate school at Princeton, where her faculty mentor told her that women had no place in science.

Elaine Fuchs: He felt that I really shouldn't be there. I think his view of women at the time were that they were less able and less capable.

Narrator: But she persevered. And after her post-doc studies at MIT, she wound up back in Illinois.

Elaine Fuchs: I was the first woman that was recruited to the biochemistry department at the University of Chicago.

Narrator: After all her early struggles to be taken seriously as a scientist, Elaine Fuchs has achieved awards and accolades for her groundbreaking work.

In 2009, Fuchs met another pioneer.

Elaine Fuchs: My secretary received the call from the White House. Quite frankly, she thought it was a crank call.

Narrator: It wasn't. The President wanted to give her something.

Award Presenter: 2008 National Medal of Science to Dr. Elaine Fuchs.

Elaine Fuchs: It's the highest award in science. It is a thrilling experience to shake the hand of the President of the United States.

Narrator: Now running her own lab a Rockefeller University, Elaine Fuchs continues to chart new terrain.

Elaine Fuchs: It's not simply how smart you are that makes you a good scientist. It's how passionate you are about the question that you ask.

There's no comfortable route for a scientist. You want to learn to get comfortable about being uncomfortable.

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