HER PROJECT: Stabilizing a fluorescent compound
WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: As the daughter of John Zoltewicz, a longtime professor of organic chemistry at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Susie Zoltewicz grew up hearing about chemical experiments. They intrigued her, and so, as a high school student in the 1980s, she decided to do an unusual thing for a teenager: spend more time with her dad than necessary. She joined his lab to work on a project to enter in science fairs and competitions.
"It was a little stressful at times," she says. "He was pretty strict." She tried to quit more than once, but then her work started garnering attention at various science fairs. At the time there was some speculation that a particular fluorescent compound could be used in cancer treatment, but the compound broke apart rapidly in water. That would be a problem, because water is a key ingredient in the human body. Zoltewicz's work showed that by incorporating micelles—basically, a detergent called SDS found in laundry soaps—into water solutions with the fluorescent compound, you could make it last longer in the body. Zoltewicz entered her results in the 1986 Westinghouse Science Talent Search and was named a finalist.
HOW IT AFFECTED HER CAREER: Working in the lab—and winning awards—whetted Zoltewicz's taste for research. At Princeton University she studied molecular biology, and afterward, pursued her PhD in developmental biology at the University of California, Berkeley, (where she dedicated her thesis "To my dad, for leading me to science"). Her main focus has been studying how the central nervous system develops in embryos: in frogs as a graduate student, then in mice as a postdoc at Duke University starting in 1997, and later at U.C. San Francisco when her lab moved to the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center there in 1999.
In 2003 she was promoted to an associate research scientist at Gallo. She works on a gene called Oto, mutations in which block head development. In her experiments, "basically what you do to try to understand something is to mess it up and compare it to the normal," she says. So with frogs, for instance, she cut and pasted genes in experiments that sometimes led to the development of two-headed (or no-headed) tadpoles. Although this sounds a bit grim, she notes that there are multiple humans born each year with severe head defects. Many die quickly. "We want to understand why that does happen and prevent it from happening," she says.
Her father—now retired—has watched her career with pride. "The father–daughter to teacher–pupil to fellow scientist progression has caused our relationship to mature and expand through common learning experiences and activities, providing a special bond," he says.
WHAT SHE'S DOING NOW: Zoltewicz's lab at Gallo closed in 2006 (the professor who ran it left to work for Genentech in 2005). So she decided to move back home to Gainesville to take a break before diving back into research. She and her father are now working together again—this time on painting and renovating her house. "It's better than the lab days," she says. "We're getting to know each other as adults and people—and getting to be friends."