Listening to Angelika Amon teach my cancer biology class in the spring of 2001 felt like diving into the depths of a vivid novel, with dramatic moments and elaborate bursts of detail. She somehow brought each area of the cell to life, spinning the tale of its function into a compelling story.

In this pivotal period in biology’s history, just before Eric Lander and colleagues published the human genome in 2003, select human and yeast genes had been cloned. But most of the research had only been documented in notebooks. So when I sat in class, I soaked in knowledge that hadn’t yet made it into a textbook or even onto the web. 

Professor Amon, one of a mere handful of female scientists I’d ever encountered, approached biology—and life—with confidence and a dry sense of humor, always getting straight to the point. As a student in Austria, she had illuminated how the proteins known as cyclins drive the cell cycle. A few years after she started her lab as a Whitehead fellow at MIT, she and postdoc Rosella Visintin had discovered that a single enzyme stops cell division and promotes transition to a new cell cycle, allowing the cell to begin growing again. And here she was walking us through the details of each experiment, helping us understand how it demonstrated an activity or cellular function or instead proved that it couldn’t occur. Often using words like “remarkable” and “awesome,” she made biology so relatable, so approachable. As she described the nucleus and the nucleolus in her distinct Austrian accent, her face lit up with a broad smile, further embedding the concepts into my heart and brain. I clung to her every word.

For my third-year bio class, I got into Professor Amon’s “Project Lab,” which meant meeting with her two or three times a week and being given detailed tasks. My lab partner, Leslie Lai, and I were assigned a pilot experiment related to mitotic exit, the transition point at which a cell stops dividing and then enters a new growth phase. “I’ve not done this before,” she told us, “but in theory it should work.” 

Biology professor Angelika Amon (far right), a member of the MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, was known for her research on the cell cycle and chromosome abnormalities, as well as for her ebullient mentorship. In this 2002 Amon Lab photo, Georgette Charles is at the far left.COURTESY OF BRIAN LEE

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By: Katie McLean
Title: “She saw something in me”
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Published Date: Wed, 24 Feb 2021 03:26:08 +0000

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