- Title Emeritus Professor
Dr. Elizabeth Simons, a long-time member of the department (1972-2011, then emeritus), died peacefully surrounded by her family on March 25, 2019. Dr. Simons was an inspiration to all her many colleagues and trainees over her long career. She is especially admired for her passion for science, her determination, and her dedication to mentoring. A Celebration of Life will be held on Saturday June 1, 2019.
Elizabeth Simons PhD, August 2015 (faculty member 1972-2012)
I was trained as a Chemical Engineer (Cooper Union) and obtained a PhD in Physical Chemistry/Physics (Yale) since Biophysics did not exist as a separate field at that time. After 3 years on the Wellesley College faculty, I spent 15 years (nominally half time) 1957-1972 at Harvard Medical School. My children were born and enjoyed during those years though, when they entered school, I could spend more hours on my research on polypeptide and protein structure (early fluorescence and circular dichroism applications), in addition to teaching Biochemistry and running a 14-20 scientist lab for a professor (Elkan Blout) and, from 1969 on, serving on the Board of Tutors in Biochemical Sciences at Harvard College one evening per week.
Scientifically it was a heady time! The application of physical techniques to biological problems, the development of new instrumentation, the understanding of rules governing protein structures as well as their purification and analysis, DNA and RNA structures and the sequencing of nucleotides, as well as the exploitation of this information were all new. It was challenging and rewarding to apply the thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and biophysics I had learned to problems in an entirely new way, as well as to mentor and support outstanding students, post-doctoral and visiting scientists from many countries in my administrative role.
Professionally it was a frustrating time. Initially I was very happy – even grateful – to be able to pursue my research, to achieve results, to be valued and respected for my efforts and accomplishments by Elkan and the lab members. However the Medical School sang a different tune: I was considered ineligible for a “real” title (Lecturer but not Assistant Professor), being female, so while I wrote successful grant applications, I could not sign them. Eventually this became intolerable, my children were now 14 and 11, so I began job-hunting and was offered a position at BUSM.
The situation was so different when I came to BUSM in 1972 as Associate Professor of Biochemistry, empty handed because HMS would not allow me to take my grant (not my signature), any equipment, any data. My colleagues at BUSM offered use of their instruments, glassware, plastic ware, etc. I decided not to pursue my previous research but rather to apply biophysical approaches to study how blood cells function, an approach that had barely been tried and which involved my rapid learning about cells. Even though I had never had a course in biology or in biochemistry, I can read and think, and my training put me in the right time, so the approach worked! I got my first NIH grant in 1973, remained funded until 2010. My focus changed gradually from why HbS made cells sickle to how and why platelets are activated, how their receptors elicit signals, to what the platelet role is in Alzheimer’s Disease to an abnormality specific to platelets from AD patients (we patented it as a blood test for AD). Simultaneously we studied how phagocytic cells (neutrophils and monocytes) function normally and in some infectious diseases. In the process we developed new techniques for following multiple rapid kinetic changes in single cells multiparameter flow kinetics, designed new fluorescent probes to measure some of these changes, correlated specific receptors with the signals they elicited, changes we were able to measure continuously within 4 seconds after stimulation.
For all of these studies I was lucky to have wonderful collaborators at multiple levels: innovative faculty in the Departments of Biochemistry and Medicine (Pulmonary, Infectious Diseases, Hematology), outstanding graduate students (who often taught me rather than vice versa), excellent post-doctoral fellows, intelligent and independent technicians. Since I had had no mentoring role model(s) but would have loved one, I especially enjoyed that portion of my dealings with students, post-docs and technicians – and still do. We had a Simons Lab alumni reunion in 2009 to which about 50 of my 75 alumni came – I am so proud of all of them and of what they are accomplishing, and do hope that I played a small role in helping them to be confident, to analyze, to think logically, and to do so with integrity.
On a very different note I also became very interested in what and how medical students are taught – or not taught – i.e. in curriculum. Therefore for many years I was Assistant Director of the Office of Medical Education for the Pre-clinical years – actually the first year. Until shortly before my retirement I led one of the Integrated Problems small group (mostly the MD/PhD) discussions, a marvelous way to get the students to combine their knowledge to solve complex cases.
If I had to summarize my professional experience it would be: If you can read and think and have great co-workers you can do anything.
As to my retirement, my equipment is now with John Bernardo, a long-time collaborator, and we still have experiments we want to do, papers we need to write, but I haven’t had time. My “new” life involves taking – and sometimes leading – courses at Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, volunteering for Newton At Home (a community organization for those over 55), managing a professional chamber music group, attending many concerts. Since everything takes longer as my body ages and gets small problems, research has unfortunately not gotten the time I thought it would have. Since this is indeed a new stage of life, that’s O.K.