Retired Rutgers professor and genetics pioneer wins prestigious award


Evelyn M. Witkin, a 94-year-old retired professor emerita at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology and pioneer in the field of genetics, was awarded the prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award 2015.

The Lasker Award ceremony will take place on Friday, Sept. 18. She, along with Stephen Elledge, a fellow geneticist and professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, will receive their awards and a $250,000 honorarium on this day.

Witkin made large strides in biochemical research when she first discovered and isolated UV-resistant bacteria back in 1944, according to the Genetics Society of America.

At the time, she was conducting research during the summer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), located on Long Island.

The Rutgers Waksman website notes that these findings were largely responsible for creating the field of DNA mutagenesis and DNA repair, which later played a significant role in clinical radiation therapy for cancer.

Witkin spent her childhood and young adult life in New York City. After having received her bachelor’s degree from New York University in 1941, she went on to conduct her graduate studies at Columbia University, according to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's website.

Witkin had then returned to work at CSHL after her time in Columbia, since the facilities there were better suited to her research, Witkin said in an interview with PLoS Genetics.

At the time, she was trying to induce genetic mutations — randomized changes in the genes — of flies. What she ended up discovering instead was a strain of mutated UV-resistant flies, which helped set the foundation for her future work.

In 1947, she received her Ph.D. Witkin’s time at CSHL was then followed by a stint at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, according to the CSHL website.

She joined the Rutgers University community in 1971 when she was appointed as a professor of biological sciences at what was then Douglass College. She stayed on as a Rutgers faculty member until her retirement in 1991.

Witkin’s work specifically focused on the bacterial SOS response — the SOS response is a mechanism that cells use to repair any damage that may have been made to a strand of DNA, the building blocks of genes.

This work spanned from her Ph.D studies until her retirement, she said, according to nj.com.

Despite her many long years spent working in her specialized field of genetics, Witkin said she never tired of her research.

"I found that what I was doing was so compelling and interesting it never occurred to me I could do something else," she said in an nj.com article. "I realize it was a long time to stay in one area, but it was continuously fulfilling, and it kept me happy, so I stayed with it."

Her particular interest in the field was sparked by a boyfriend of hers who introduced her to some English-translated texts by the Russian botanist Trofim Lysenko, Witkin said.

“I had not yet gotten very deeply interested in genetics,” she said. “And we read these articles together, and I thought it sounded very interesting, that you could manipulate the environment and change heredity in any desired direction. And I thought, 'Hmm, maybe that is something I can work on when I get to the point of choosing a research topic. I'd like to see if he is right.'”

Witkin received numerous awards for her work, besides the most recent Lasker Award. Earlier this year, she was awarded The 14th Annual Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences Awarded for DNA Damage Response, according to the Wiley official website.

“She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,” according to the same website.

Another highlight that nj.com noted was the National Medal of Science, which was awarded to her by President George W. Bush in 2002.

When PLoS Genetics asked Witkin about her amazing career and her retirement after that, she said, “If I had a couple of million dollars to build a lab in my basement, I would have gone on. (Bacteria) still (have) lots of secrets!”


Francesca Falzon

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