Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard

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The lack of women among this year’s Nobel Prize winners has brought attention to the serious underrepresentation of women in positions of power in science. This WiSE Wednesday, we honor one of the rare female Nobel laureates, German developmental biologist Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard not only for her accomplishments in science but also for her dedication to helping other women succeed in the field.

Nüsslein-Volhard won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1995 (shared with Eric Wieschaus and Edward B. Lewis) for her work in developmental biology. Nüsslein-Volhard used chemicals to introduce random mutations in fruit flies, then observed the development of these flies’ embryos. Fruit fly larvae are segmented and undergo a distinct, carefully orchestrated series of developmental “steps” as they establish their body plans. Different mutations disrupted different steps and by characterizing these mutations, Nüsslein-Volhard helped elucidate genetic logic of early development.

Although this work was performed in fruit flies, much of it has been shown to apply to other organisms as well. This includes zebrafish, another model organism which Nüsslein-Volhard later turned to studying at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany where she has served as Director since 1985. She has also served on many committees including the National Ethics Council of Germany, where she promoted ethical biological research in a world of rapidly advancing technology.

Nüsslein-Volhard knows that her success story as a woman in science is much too rare and she works to help address the factors holding women back from achieving positions of influence. For example, in addition to the hard work required for success in science, women often face additional demands of their time including childcare responsibilities. Lack of affordable childcare options can prevent women from attending conferences and networking events, which makes it difficult for them to advance up the career ladder. Knowing this, Nüsslein-Volhard started a foundation (the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation) that supports female graduate students and postdocs through grants to assist with childcare and household chores. Who knows, maybe one of these grant recipients is a future Nobel laureate! 

Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr