Alison A. Weiss

Born: December 22, 1952 | Milwaukee, WI, US

Alison A. Weiss grew up in Wisconsin. Weiss chose to attend Washington University in St. Louis, where she worked on bacteria in Simon Silver’s lab. She enjoyed the University, Silver’s lab, her independence, and the work, ultimately staying on as a technician for a three years. Weiss began graduate school in Stanley Falkow’s lab at the University of Washington; soon thereafter the lab moved to Stanford University. Her dissertation dealt with Bordetella pertussis, and she cloned a pertussis toxin. After two years as a postdoc at the University of Virginia (UVA) Weiss was recruited to UVA’s medical school, Virginia Commonwealth University.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0807
No. of pages: 46
Minutes: 140

Interview Sessions

Robert Kohler and Naomi Morrissette
3 March 1991
Coronado, California

Abstract of Interview

Alison A. Weiss grew up in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, the second of six children. Her father was an electrician, her mother a housewife. All six children graduated from college, and four have postgraduate education. Alison has always liked science and math and has always done well in them.

Because of campus chaos at the University of Wisconsin, Weiss chose to attend Washington University in St. Louis, where she worked on bacteria in Simon Silver’s lab. She enjoyed the University, Silver’s lab, her independence, and the work, ultimately staying on as a technician for a three years. Weiss began graduate school in Stanley Falkow’s lab at the University of Washington; soon thereafter the lab moved to Stanford University. Weiss chose to work in pathogenic bacteria because she liked microbiology and wanted find a way to use it to help prevent disease. Her dissertation dealt with Bordetella pertussis, and she cloned a pertussis toxin, partly as a result of a short stint with Douglas Berg who taught her a great deal of genetics and a different way of looking at things.

After two years as a postdoc at University of Virginia (UVA) Weiss and her husband were recruited to UVA’s medical school, Virginia Commonwealth University. Weiss received a good setup package and gradually built up her lab. She keeps her lab somewhat small so that she can keep up with the extensive literature. Her main focus is trying to figure out not just what pathogens do, but why and how. She says that even diphtheria, the simplest disease, is still not understood, and pertussis is much more complicated.

Weiss loves bench work and works at balancing it with her family life. She discusses the funding situation, peer review, and the time and effort one must devote to study sections. Asked about her ten-year plan, she says she is lucky or unlucky enough to have realized all her goals so far, but she suggests she might like to do field work, hoping to improve human health. Weiss explains how the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences money helped her. She ends her interview by describing the personality needed to be a scientist, saying science is an exciting, creative, and rewarding career for someone with patience.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1975 Washington University in St. Louis AB Biology
1981 University of Washington MS Microbiology
1983 Stanford University PhD Medical Microbiology

Professional Experience

University of Virginia

1983 to 1985
Postdoctoral Fellow

Virginia Commonwealth University

1985 to 1992
Assistant Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
1980

American Society for Microbiology, Presidents Fellowship

1981

NIH Predoctoral Fellowship, Stanford University

1983

NIH Predoctoral Fellowship, Stanford University

1984 to 1985

Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Fellowship

1987 to 1991

Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences Award

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Grows up in Wisconsin. Family life and background. High school education. Enjoys math and science. Early influences.

College Years
4

Washington University in St. Louis. Simon Silver’s lab. Works on bacteria. Publishes. Three year technician position. Lab atmosphere. Silver’s social outreach.

Graduate School Years
10

 

Stanley Falkow’s lab at University of Washington and Stanford University. Finding practical use for microbiology. Studies pathogenic bacteria. Dissertation on transposons as mutagenesis agents in Bordetella pertussis. Falkow’s lab composition and management. Clones pertussis toxin as alternative project. Influence of Michael Koomey, Daniel Portnoy, Stephen Moseley. Two years as postdoc at University of Virginia.

First Job
27

Virginia Commonwealth University Medical School. Startup package. Lab composition and management. Positives of smaller lab. Researching pathogens and underlying causes of disease. Clinical connections important. Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences funding.

General Observations
34

Balancing motherhood and work. Loves bench work. Funding and peer review. Evaluation variance related to probability of success; focus on advancement of human health. Would not want human subjects; impossible to do good experiments. Number of groups working in pathological microbiology. Personality required to be scientist. Science creative and rewarding for the patient person.

Index
45

About the Interviewer

Robert Kohler
Naomi Morrissette