Tuesday, July 27, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Biologist's Unique Vision Earned Her A Genius Grant

Science people: What does it take to win a MacArthur Foundation grant? In the case of Victoria Foe, a researcher at the University of Washington, it is an unconventional mind working in an unconventional way producing important, pioneering work in developmental biology.

Her whole life, Victoria Foe has done things out of the mainstream. From her "out-of-style" approach to science to the anti-careerism way she's gone about it; from her wandering-the-world upbringing to her anti-war and pro-feminist political activism; from her shy but free-spirit personality to her deeply felt ties to a '60s-flavored island community in Canada.

Several threads have persisted throughout this adventurous, passionate life: an always questioning mind, an inner-directedness that allowed her to do things differently even as self-doubts persisted; a love for both art and science that combined to form a unique vision.

Last month, as she turned 48 years old, this iconoclasm found its most visible public endorsement. Foe won a $295,000 MacArthur Foundation grant - popularly known as "the genius grant" (though the foundation frowns on the nickname), given to creative, talented individuals doing something for public benefit. Winners, who are nominated anonymously, can use the grant for anything they wish.

Winning research

Foe's work in developmental biology may at first seem dry and ivory towerish to the uninitiated. But that is before she describes what it means; then, her excitement about what she calls "this huge magic" begins to convey the significance.

"It's a window into `What are we?' and `How do we make ourselves?' " she explains. How, she has asked over the years, do masses of cells organize themselves to produce a creature? To begin to answer that, she has charted how a fruit fly develops from a single fertilized cell.

Through painstaking observation, she mapped the fruit fly embryo into 25 "mitotic domains," which she discovered are groups of cells that divide at different times and exhibit different behaviors on their way to becoming different parts of the embryo, such as nerves, muscles and other organs. She calls these charts "fate maps."

The result of her contribution, explains geneticist Bruce Edgar at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is that the fruit fly is now the only organism where both the pattern of cell division and the genetic mechanisms that control it are known.

This is important, she says, because the genes that control fruit fly cell division are the same as those genes that carry out the same functions across the animal kingdom, including humans.

If scientists ever master manipulation of cell division, applications could range from stopping cancers to growing stronger plants.

And, Foe can't help but add: "It's wonderful philosophically to know we're all made out of the same fabric. It may give us a little humility."

Her work is being used by thousands of other scientists who are building on it to do genetic and developmental studies.

The modest Foe likes to emphasize not her contribution, but the way that generations of biologists are slowly amassing answers to basic questions - a process she likens to the way generations of craftsmen built the medieval cathedrals.

"While one corner, one arch, a mural may be a particularly glorious one, the thing to emphasize is that it's a collective endeavor. We are making this incredible edifice of knowledge. The end result of which, we will understand what a living organism is."

A unique vision

Still, her fans in the science world say her accomplishments are unique for several reasons. Her mentor, Bruce Alberts, the new president of the National Academy of Sciences, says her combination of artistic and scientific skills make her gifted at seeing patterns and order in complex series of events. That talent, he says, is coupled with extraordinary persistence and patience.

He and others note that her work stands out, too, because it is out of the mainstream of what most developmental biologists are doing these days, which is to study organisms at the molecular level - reconstructing simplified systems in test tubes, gene cloning and the like.

Foe, as she explains, is doing what embryologists did in the 19th century - albeit with 20th century techniques - which is to spend untold hours at the microscope "looking at the organism living its life and trying to figure out what it's doing."

"She has come up with very important observations people doing more mainstream work would never have found," says Edgar, the Fred Hutchinson geneticist who has done research with Foe.

And she did all this while outside the traditional university system, living from grant to grant, at times even setting up labs in her pantry at home.

Unconventional childhood

Foe's bent for the unconventional perhaps has roots in her atypical childhood. Her lawyer father was 47 when she was born, and lavished much attention on her, especially encouraging her talent in science. Retired, he settled his family, which included three children, with Victoria the eldest, on a farm and ranch in Greybull, Wyo.; her first 10 years were spent close to nature and animals.

Even as a child, her family recalls, she was intense, scholarly and hard-working. Her brother Christopher, a Ph.D. aquatic biologist, recalls her nickname was "Miss Yes, But," because she always was questioning things. Recalls her mother, Vera: "She was always tasting things, feeling things, looking at things."

After a particularly miserable blizzard, the family lit out for Mexico for three years. When they couldn't shake chronic sickness, including hepatitis and malaria, they moved to the Canary Islands; from there they moved to Plymouth, England. When the father's health worsened, they abruptly relocated to the warmer climate of Corpus Christi, Texas.

Although they lived mostly on her father's limited earnings teaching English classes, Foe recalls it as "an excellent childhood." Living in the Third World, she says, helped her develop a sense of social responsibility and political awareness.

It was in high school in England that she became enchanted with embryology. She read about frog experiments where cutting and moving tissues affected the way the frog developed (such as producing two heads). "It was the most exciting thing I had ever seen," she says.

After all, she reasoned, "The most amazing magic thing that happens on this planet is life."

Scientific, political education

The family's abrupt return to the States left her few options and she found herself at the University of Texas, Austin (she laments the "unexceptional education"). But it was at Austin that she began working on the same kinds of questions she still pursues.

It was also the beginning of her political involvements, part of what makes her follow a different path to this day. She was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and Latin American issues, and part of a women's movement project that led her to take a year and a half off from studies to play an instrumental role in the decriminalization of abortion in Texas.

"I felt, and continue to feel, that if women cannot decide whether and if they're going to have children, they can't decide anything else about their lives," she says. And, she believes that a good society requires political participation from all members.

After getting her Ph.D. at Texas, she did postdoctoral work at the University of Washington, which led to work at the University of California, San Francisco, with Alberts. At UCSF, she started her work with fruit flies.

This, she says, is where she really veered off the standard path.

Off the path

At that time she was married to a professor of physiology and neurobiology. He decided he wanted to quit science, and become a sculptor and move to a communally owned piece of farmland on Canada's Denman Island.

Foe supported the decision. But it presented some problems.

She did not want to leave science. "I loved working in Bruce Alberts' lab," she says. But she was also disenchanted with the competitive way science was being done.

She is at first hesitant to say it. But then, it's out: "On the part of males, there is a lot of posturing, bravado, a lot of showmanship involved. The competition is to beat each other to discoveries; among postdoctoral students, it is to compete for limited number of good jobs in the country."

While she has always felt sure of the work she wanted to do, "I'm easily intimidated by men." How much is her feeling and how much a broader women's issue is hard for her to pin down; she thinks maybe men enjoy competition, but, "It makes me feel bad. My instinct is, if the boys are running races and standing on handlebars, I'll go somewhere else and play by myself."

Foe also felt alienated by the model of how to do research, especially in biology: A scientist establishes a lab and becomes manager and broker of a kind of factory of more fledgling scientists. This never appealed to Foe, who loves working with her own hands and eyes. "There is knowledge and information you accumulate after looking yourself. You see little weird things along the way, and if you see them enough times, suddenly you put it together."

There was a final element that took her to her own path: "I wanted to live life in such a way to do something other than science. . . . And that is very uncommon in this business."

It's not that Foe doesn't pour untold hours into her research (Foe and computer mathematician Garrett Odell, her personal and professional collaborator, often are seen heading for home from the lab at 6 a.m.)

Even so, she wanted time for her other strong interests: art, her garden, politics.

It was with all these ideas in mind that she arranged to work in the off-season at the UW's Friday Harbor marine biology lab ("the most northwestern tip I could get to").

By calling herself an "extension" of Alberts' San Francisco lab, she kept her National Institutes of Health grant. When the marine biologists crowded her out, she would take her bottles of fruit flies (complete with their own traveling papers) and join her then-husband on Denman Island, working out of her kitchen with a little microscope. She also became deeply involved in the women's peace and disarmament movement there.

After two years, NIH did something highly unusual: Officials were so impressed with her proposed work that they gave her the only grant awarded to an individual.

Three years ago she came to the UW to work in Odell's lab, where she has been since, with a year's interruption for a Guggenheim research fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley.

At the UW, though she draws no salary, colleagues say she freely shares her knowledge and assistance with them and students. In particular, she has been a mentor and role model to the zoology department's women graduate students.

She desperately misses Denman Island, "a kind of '60s community that stayed," where she has land now, "but I can't take my science there."

Getting the MacArthur - which stunned her to tears - will not change her course. What it will do is act as insurance, should she fail to get research grants to continue her work. And it will allow her to take more scientific risks, she says. Living from grant to grant, she must be careful about what she chooses to pursue: "If you have a hunch and you follow it and it doesn't pan out, NIH could say, `You just wasted a year.' "

To others, her award is a sign that there is room in science for different approaches - at least for the most brilliant.

As Dany Adams, a woman zoology Ph.D. candidate who considers Foe a role model, says: "This prize . . . says you don't have to fit the mold, you can be whoever you are, and still have your excellence recognized."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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