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Infinite stories

“She saw something in me”

Biology professor Angelika Amon, who died in October, will be remembered for her groundbreaking work to understand the processes that control cell division. But for me—and countless other alumni—she was also an inspiring, life-changing mentor.

Angelika Amon

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.” 

Amon's class
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.

The gene SPO12 is known to be a key regulator of mitotic exit; when it’s mutated, however, cells have only mild defects in mitosis, suggesting that another gene is also involved. The assignment was to try to find this other gene. So we first removed SPO12. Then we used a transposon (a DNA sequence that can jump into and disrupt other sequences in the genome) to search for the other gene. By controlling nutrient conditions, we could turn the transposon on and off like a switch, looking for inhibited cell growth as it landed in different parts of the genome. Finding this loss of growth would suggest that the gene where the transposon had landed might also play a role in mitotic exit. Amazingly, our experiment worked! We didn’t have time to validate our findings in Project Lab. But Angelika, as everyone called her, offered us the opportunity to continue the work in her lab.

In a short time, we’d sequenced the mutation and cloned the gene at the location where the transposon landed. It turned out to be LTE1, and we put it back into the original mutated cells to make them grow normally again. We then performed various other experiments to confirm its role in mitotic exit. And just like that, I was hooked.

Angelika would see us walking down the hall and call out—very loudly!—“Georgette, you are a superstar! Leslie, you are a superstar!” It soon became her routine greeting. Can you imagine?! Having this rock-star scientist call me a “star” was transformative. So was being in her lab, surrounded by extraordinary graduate students and postdocs, all of us inspired and encouraged by Angelika. While we worked hard, we had fun together. This, I learned, was what a team should be. She would take the lab on outings and talked about her husband, Johannes, and their daughter, Theresa (Clara wasn’t born yet), creating a sense of family in her lab. We students adopted her work ethic, choosing to stay late, come in early, and work on weekends. We all felt a sense of pride and dedication. 

Having this rock-star scientist call me a “star” was transformative. So was being in her lab, surrounded by extraordinary people, all of us inspired and encouraged by Angelika.  

Early in my senior year, I heard Angelika cheerfully bellowing my name down the hall, her usual method for calling people to her office. As always, she got right to the point: “Georgette, so you are going to graduate school, right?!” I was sort of considering it, but no one in my family had a PhD. As an African-American woman, the first in my immediate family to get a bachelor’s degree, I found the idea so foreign. When I told her I hadn’t fully explored that possibility, she said, “Well, why not? You should!” The color of my skin was irrelevant to Angelika. She saw my research skills, my tenacity, and my willingness to walk—or run, if necessary—a mile to the lab first thing on Saturday mornings to pour agar plates so everyone was prepared for the day’s experiments. She saw my rigor in writing all my methods down, detailing which colonies had been picked, each with individual genetic signatures—and each one needing to be cultured, PCR’d, and genotyped. She saw something in me that I didn’t have the experience or history to know myself. 

Angelika encouraged me to go to UCSF, which she called “progressive,” for my PhD. In Geeta Narlika’s lab, I studied chromatin because there were still many unknowns about the nucleus and nucleolus, and I helped bring yeast into her lab as a model system. I kept Angelika updated on my progress and tracked hers. She moved into the new Koch Institute for Cancer Research and accepted numerous awards. (When she won the prestigious Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2019 for uncovering the consequences of aneuploidy—an imbalance in chromosome numbers after cell division—I was thrilled for her but not the least bit surprised.) In the middle of my graduate career, I recommended her as a UCSF speaker. Secretly, I did it 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 overshares), cares, makes us reach beyond what we thought possible, and celebrates with us professionally and personally. It’s why I brought my first child, Gregory, with me so she could meet him when I came back to campus in 2016. She proved that being a woman, a scientist, and a mom could and should all fit together. 

I’d planned to visit her with my second child, Gabriel, who was born in February 2020, but alas, covid intervened. When Angelika passed away in October, I, like many, ached. I had so much more to share with her. Her first name was a fitting one for someone who was a steadfast mentor and friend, and an angel to so many.

Georgette Charles ’03 is an associate director for market research at UCB. For more on the remarkable career of Angelika Amon, click here.

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