Judith White

Born: May 3, 1952 | Philadelphia, PA, US

Judith M. White grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, attending Franklin and Marshall College as a member of its first coeducational class; she was the only female chemistry major. Carl Pike, her biology teacher and lab supervisor, inspired her interest in biology. She spent two summers doing research, first at University of Rochester, and then at Bryn Mawr College.  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. 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.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0736
No. of pages: 31
Minutes: 175

Interview Sessions

Robert Kohler and Naomi Morrissette
13 December 1989
University of California, San Francisco

Abstract of Interview

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.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1973 Franklin and Marshall College BA Chemistry
1979 Harvard University PhD Biophysics

Professional Experience

European Molecular Biology Laboratory of Heidelberg

1979 to 1982
Post Doctorate, Membrane Biochemistry

Yale University School of Medicine

1982 to 1985
Research Associate, Department of Cell Biology

University of California, San Francisco

1985 to 1990
Assistant Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
1980 to 1982

Swebilius Cancer Research Award, Yale University School of Medicine

1985 to 1989

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences Award

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born in Philadelphia. Moved to just outside Philadelphia for junior high school. Family background. No early interest in science. Enjoyed math, chemistry, and physics, but not biology.

College Years
4

Matriculated at Franklin and Marshall College. Only woman to major in chemistry. Excellent undergraduate teaching. Carl Pike sparks interest in biology classes and labs. Plant physiology during summer at Bryn Mawr College. Summer research at University of Rochester in Ioav Cabantchik’s lab, funding from U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Interest in membranes.

Graduate School Years
8

Harvard University for graduate school, studying biophysics. Again the only woman. First thesis lab with Guido Guidotti, switched to Don Wiley’s lab. Intrigued by viruses. Work in Michael Waterfield’s lab. Friendship with Mary Jane Gething. Ari Helenius and Wiley, their work, and their enthusiasm.

Postdoctoral Years
12

Considers virology and John Skehel’s lab, but chooses Helenius. Enjoys Helenius’s work on membrane structures of viruses. European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. Cooperative environment. No grants. Excellent scientists. Rigorous, very good training. Interdisciplinary. Contrast between Wiley’s management style and Helenius’s.

Striking Out on Her Own
16

Recruited to University of California, San Francisco, by Peter Walter, Henry Bourne. Focus on membranes, but with broader virological scope. Works mostly with influenza virus. Collaborations with other scientists. Describes cell surface fusion. Semliki Forest virus work. Helenius and endocytosis; finding that pH the crucial factor.

General Thoughts
23

Desire to learn more about genetics. Advice for students. Likes bench work, does as much as she can manage. Enjoys working with students. Thinks she’s not hard-driving enough. Thinks quantity of publications unreliable for evaluation of scientist. Strong female role models. Sense of humor important.

Index
30

About the Interviewer

Robert Kohler
Naomi Morrissette