Lee Ann Niswander

Born: June 27, 1957 | Bluffton, OH, US

Lee Ann Niswander was born in Bluffton, Ohio. She loved school, especially mathematics and science. After high school, she worked on dude ranches for a few years before matriculating at the University of Colorado. She worked as a technician at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center before attending Case Western University. She also spent three months in Sweden, learning microdissection and microcloning, 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. She now works at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She studies limb development in the chick embryo, neural tube patterning, and feather bud development. She also teaches at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0533
No. of pages: 117
Minutes: 450

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
15 and 17-18 May 2000
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, New York

Abstract of Interview

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. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1980 University of Colorado, Boulder BA
1985 University of Colorado, Health Sciences Center MS
1990 Case Western Reserve University PhD

Professional Experience

University of Colorado, Health Sciences Center

1980 to 1984
Research Assistant

University of California, San Francisco

1990 to 1993
Postdoctoral Fellow

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

1993 to 1998
Assistant Member, Molecular Biology Program
1998 to 2001
Associate Member

Honors

Year(s) Award
1991 to 1993

American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellowship

1995 to 1999

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

1997 to 2001

Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Assistant Investigator

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Niswander's family and religious background. Mennonite religion. Her falling away from the Mennonite faith. The importance of music to her and her family. Her interest in the mentally and physically handicapped.

College Years
17

Niswander begins college in special education at Western Michigan University. Moves to Colorado and works for a few years before going into chemistry at University of Colorado.

Postgraduate Years
20

An influential teacher in chemistry. Works as technician at the EleanorRoosevelt Institute for Cancer Research. Earns her M.S. at the University ofColorado Health Sciences Center. Meets her future husband, Richard Davis. Enters doctoral program at Case Western Reserve University to studydevelopmental biology. Works in Terry Magnuson laboratory.

Faculty Years
31

Niswander's and her husband's quest to find positions in the same or nearby institutions. Her research on RNA-binding proteins and fibroblast growth factor family members in the Gail R. Martin laboratory. Accepts a position at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Niswander's institutional affiliations. Teaching commitments. Her embryology course at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Her friendship with John W. Saunders Jr. . Three main research projects in the Niswander laboratory. Ethnic makeup of Niswander's laboratory. Ratio of men to women students and faculty at Sloan-Kettering Institute. Funding. Administrative duties—Gender issues in science. Writing articles. Niswander's love of benchwork. Her son's impact on her home life and research. Studies the roles of Bmps in dorsal-ventral patterning in the neural tube. Possible implications of her research. Patents. Competition, collaborations, ethical questions in science. Future plans.

Index
114

About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen