Listening to Angelika Amon teach in my cancer biology class in the spring of 2001 was like stepping into the depths of a living novel, with dramatic moments and bursts of elaborate detail. She kind of brought every area of the cell to life, turning the tale of her function into a compelling story.
In this pivotal period in the history of biology, just before Eric Lander and his colleagues published the human genome in 2003, certain 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 imbibed knowledge that had not yet been incorporated into a textbook or even on the web.
Professor Amon, one of the few female scientists I met, approached biology – and life – with confidence and a dry sense of humor, always going straight to the point. As a student in Austria, she had explained how proteins called cyclins direct the cell cycle. A few years after starting her lab as a Whitehead Fellow at MIT, she and postdoctoral fellow Rosella Visintin discovered that a single enzyme stops cell division and promotes the transition to a new cell cycle, allowing the cell to start over. grow. And here she was explaining the details of each experiment to us, helping us understand how it demonstrated cellular activity or function, or rather, proved it couldn’t happen. Often using words like “remarkable” and “awesome,” she made biology so accessible, so accessible. As she described the nucleus and nucleolus in her distinct Austrian accent, her face lit up with a broad smile, further incorporating the concepts into my heart and brain. I clung to every word.
For my third year bio class, I entered Professor Amon’s “Project Lab”, which meant meeting her two or three times a week and being given detailed tasks. My lab partner, Leslie Lai, and I received a pilot experiment related to mitotic exit, the transition point at which a cell stops dividing and then enters a new phase of growth. “I’ve never done this before,” she told us, “but in theory it should work.”
The gene SPO12 is known to be a key regulator of mitotic output; when it is mutated, however, the cells show only slight defects in mitosis, suggesting that another gene is involved as well. The mission was to try to find this other gene. So we first deleted SPO12. Then we used a transposon (a DNA sequence that can skip and disrupt other sequences in the genome) to search for the other gene. By controlling the nutrient conditions, we could turn the transposon on and off like a switch, looking for inhibited cell growth as it lands in different parts of the genome. The discovery of this growth loss would suggest that the gene where the transposon landed might also play a role in mitotic output. Surprisingly, our experiment worked! We did not have time to validate our results in Project Lab. But Angelika, as everyone called her, offered us the opportunity to continue the work in her laboratory.
In no time, we sequenced the mutation and cloned the gene where the transposon landed. It turned out to be LTE1, and we put it back into the original mutated cells to grow them back normally. We then performed various other experiments to confirm its role in mitotic output. And just like that, I was hooked.
Angelika saw us walking down the hall and screaming – very loud! – “Georgette, you’re a superstar!” Leslie, you are a superstar! It quickly became his routine greeting. Can you imagine ?! The fact that this rock star scientist calls me a “star” was transformative. So it was being in her laboratory, surrounded by extraordinary students and post-docs, all inspired and encouraged by Angelika. While we were working hard, we had fun together. This is, I learned, what a team should be. She would take the lab on outings and talk about her husband, Johannes, and their daughter, Theresa (Clara was not yet born), creating a sense of family in her lab. We, the students, have embraced his work ethic, choosing to stay late, come early, and work weekends. We all felt a sense of pride and dedication.
Early in my senior year, I heard Angelika blithely bellow my name in the hallway, her usual method of calling people at her office. As always, she gets straight to the point: “Georgette, so you’re going to go to higher education, right ?!” I was sort of thinking about it, but no one in my family had a doctorate. As an African American woman, the first in my immediate family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, I found the idea so foreign. When I told her that I hadn’t fully explored this possibility, she said, “Well, why not? You should! ”My skin color was irrelevant to Angelika. She saw my research skills, tenacity, and willingness to walk – or run, if necessary – a mile from the lab on Saturday morning to pour agar plates so everyone was ready for the day’s experiments. She saw my thoroughness in writing all of my methods, detailing which colonies had been selected, each with individual genetic signatures – and each had to being cultured, PCR and genotyped She saw something in me that I had neither the experience nor the history to know about myself.
Angelika encouraged me to go to UCSF, which she called “progressive”, for my doctorate. In Geeta Narlika’s lab, I studied chromatin as there were still many unknowns about the nucleus and nucleolus, and helped bring yeast to his lab as a model system. I kept Angelika informed of my progress and followed hers. She moved into the new Koch Cancer Research Institute and accepted many awards. (When she won the prestigious 2019 Life Sciences Breakthrough Award for discovering the consequences of aneuploidy – an imbalance in chromosome numbers after cell division – I was thrilled for her but not at all surprised. ) In the middle of my university career, I recommended her as a UCSF lecturer. In secret, I did this so that I could introduce her to my boyfriend, whom she pronounced “a keeper!” (She was right; he’s now my husband.) Angelika was the kind of mentor we all need: someone who shares (or even shares), cares, makes us go above and beyond what we thought. possible and famous with us professionally and personally. That’s why I took my first child, Gregory, with me so she could meet him when I returned to campus in 2016. She has proven that being a woman, a scientist and a mother can and should. all go together.
I had planned to visit him with my second child, Gabriel, born in February 2020, but alas, Covid intervened. When Angelika passed away in October, I, like many, was in pain. I had so much more to share with her. His first name suited someone who was a mentor and steadfast friend, and an angel to so many.
Georgette Charles ’03 is Associate Director of Market Research at UCB. To learn more about Angelika Amon’s remarkable career, click on here.