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Science women honor ASU discoverer of ‘skinny’ gene

By

Margaret Coulombe

Geneticist Winifred Doane, Professor Emerita of Arizona State University and a respected researcher and educator, was one of eight Fellows honored Feb. 15 for “commitment to the achievement of equity for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics” by the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), in conjunction with the annual American Association for the Advancement in Science (AAAS) meeting held in Chicago.

The Women in Science honorees, which included a chemist, a physicist, a psychologist, three biologists and two science educators, will join a network of 142 other fellows, chosen from 50 chapters across the United States.

Doane received her official certificate and a pin in an informal ceremony on Feb. 26 on the steps of ASU’s Old Main, officiated by Susanne Neuer, associate professor in the School of Life Sciences and president of the local chapter of AWIS which Doane founded in 1996. Neuer was also selected to serve on the AWIS national board in 2008.

“Winifred belongs to that generation of women who have had to overcome obstacles of gender discrimination which we today can hardly imagine,” says Neuer. “Becoming an AWIS Fellow is a well-deserved recognition of Winifred’s role as a trailblazer and inspiration to today’s generation of women scientists.”

Doane received her doctorate in zoology/genetics from Yale in 1960, in a climate that was just starting to open up to women in science careers. Her research, which employed cutting-edge technology, led to the discovery of a number of genes in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. Key among her discoveries were the control genes for tissue-specific expression of the Amy genes (amylase) and adipose, the first obesity gene found in fruit flies. These studies transported her onto the Genetics Study Section review panel for the National Institutes of Health, which strengthened her career, and translated into significant federal funding during her years at Yale and later at ASU.

Doane remembers that, “Although Yale was the first graduate school in the U.S. to accept female graduate students, when you got your degree back then they didn’t expect women to do anything with it except to teach in a small liberal arts college.”

Doane was at the forefront of her field in 1977, when she (and her fly mutants) came to ASU’s then Department of Zoology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Politics at Yale stifled. The attitude there was that ‘one out of six professors will make tenure.’ It was always a matter of knocking you down, particularly if you were a woman,” Doane notes. “Here at ASU, the focus was on helping faculty, male and female, succeed.”

Doane estimates that, during her 21 years at ASU, she taught genetics to more than 2,500 undergraduate students, advised 280 undergraduate students, and served as research advisor and mentor for 44 undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral trainees. She was also the founder and first president of the Central Arizona Chapter of the Association for Women in Science, and a founding council member of the ASU Emeritus College, which was established in 2004. Doane is a AAAS Fellow and has published more than 120 research papers and book articles related to her work. She currently serves as the editor of the “Emeritus College Newsletter” and was a panelist for a podcast titled “Emeritus College: Reflecting on 50 Years of ASU as a University,” which recently aired on ASUtv.

Doane remains active with AWIS and in the community mentoring women in science. Her most recent activity included working in tandem with Neuer, and Bianca Bernstein, professor with the Mary Lou Fulton School of Education, to bring graduate students, professors and emeritus faculty together with undergraduate students and the public in an interactive forum on women and careers in science for ASU Darwinfest.

Though she officially retired in 1998, Doane has left an indelible mark on the science community in Arizona and ASU, as well as nationally and internationally, through her students and contributions to the field which she studied for more than half a century.

She continues to maintain the fruit flies that carry her “skinny gene” (adipose), now the subject of intensive research in laboratories throughout the United States. “It’s most gratifying to have my favorite gene finally recognized for what it might offer,” Doane notes.

“Winifred is a wonderful representative of how dedication to what you love – in her case, science – can translate into a fulfilling and rewarding career,” says Faye Farmer, vice president of AWIS’s local chapter and ASU alumna. “Winifred’s gentle, yet determined conversations regarding women’s status in science have guided me, and many others, on their journey.”

“Despite progress, there is still high attrition of female scientists following graduate school,” Neuer says. “Winifred has embodied the mission of both ASU and AWIS, pursuing cutting-edge, collaborative and cross disciplinary research, while serving as a role model for success.”

“Stories like Winifred’s serve to raise the awareness of future generations and offer the insight to overcome the remaining obstacles to gender equity in science.”