The University of Chicago Magazine April 1996
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Class News

Of Mice, Men, and Women

As a sophomore at New York's Hunter College in 1943, Liane Russell, PhD'49,surveyed the school's bulletin board for summer jobs, never dreaming that thenotice she re-sponded to would lead to both her lifelong work as a geneticistand her future husband.

Her choice that day, and the following summer as well, was Jackson MemorialLaboratory in Maine, where she learned how to study mouse embryos and pigmentgen-etics. "I got so turned on by the research," recalls Russell, who waspersuaded to become a scientist rather than a medical doctor, as she hadplanned. "I liked the fact that anything I would find out would be somethingnew."

Now a senior research fellow at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge,TN, she's still close to mice--and to Bill Russell, PhD'36, the director of theJackson summer program whom she later married and who also was a geneticist atORNL.

Russell, 72, first came to ORNL's "Mouse House" 48 years ago while conductingher dissertation research in the U of C's zoology department. Her findingsabout the effects of radiation on developing embryos led to the establishmentof international medical guidelines to avoid exposing a woman with anunsuspected pregnancy to potentially harmful X-rays.

Soon after, Russell focused her microscope on genetic mutations, using herinvestigations to explain genes' molecular structure and behavior. Mostnotably, she discovered the crucial role played by Y chromosomes in determininggender. She has also linked her examinations of mutated genes in mice todisease-producing genes in humans. "These mutations are outstanding tools forgetting at the normal gene," Russell explains. "By having something go wrong,you can find out how it should be normally."

Her lifetime achievement was acknowledged with an Enrico Fermi award,presented to her by the Department of Energy in early 1995. That same year, sherelinquished her administrative duties as head of the mammalian-geneticssection of ORNL to focus on collaborative studies in molecular genetics, withan emphasis on DNA analysis and gene mapping. For two decades, she had overseena team of eight Ph.D. students, more than 20 technicians, 22 animal caretakers,and some 120,000 mice.

Years of experience haven't jaded Russell, who continues to enjoy the elementof surprise that first thrilled her at Jackson Lab. Recently, she and her teamstumbled upon a cleft-palate gene when they were looking in the "neighborhood"of a gene that causes pink eye. "There's a tremendous amount of excitement inbiological research," Russell says. "It's essential to discover genes that havesignificance to human health."

--Charlotte Snow

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