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Professor Jane Dyson Shares Her Zig-Zag Path



Professor Jane Dyson Shares Her Zig-Zag Path

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

The latest installment of the Female Faculty Lecture Series, organized by the Scripps California Network for Women in Science (NWiS), gave students and faculty a glimpse into the untraditional, but by many measures wildly productive, career of H. Jane Dyson.

In her lecture on April 16, Dyson, a professor at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), spoke about her career, which has spanned chemistry and biology—and several continents. She discussed the challenges she faced and the lessons she learned.

“My advice is to choose to work on the type of research you enjoy,” said Dyson.

Finding a Niche

Born in England, Dyson immigrated with her family to Australia as a young child in the 1950s. She had always loved science and was at the top of her class in secondary school (high school). When she transitioned from her “country” school to college at the University of Sydney, however, she had new competition from the students around her.

This kind of transition is one she’s seen her own students struggle with. “It’s a big move, and you feel a little intimidated,” said Dyson.

Luckily, Dyson found a niche in the field of biochemistry and went on to earn a PhD in inorganic chemistry. In 1977, she traveled to Boston for a postdoctoral position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Although the snowy winter was a shock to her system, she enjoyed her research into enzymes called tRNA synthetases under Paul Schimmel (now a TSRI professor as well).

Unfortunately, her research did not go as hoped. She aimed to reproduce an experiment performed previously in the lab, but despite perfectly replicating the protocol, she could never get the correct result.

“I thought I was absolutely no good at research,” said Dyson. She later learned that the original experiment had been flawed, and she had actually gotten accurate results.

Disappointed, Dyson returned to Australia and switched to a career as a lecturer in chemistry at the University of New South Wales. She had a big work load, but she discovered that she loved teaching. “It was the 1970s, and you had to caution your students not to taste the chemicals,” said Dyson with a laugh.

'Nothing Is Wasted'

Dyson’s return to research began with an off-beat hobby: caving. Dyson and a friend were exploring Australia’s Bungonia cave system and became fascinated with the high CO2 levels in the caves and the growth of bacteria in the cave conditions. Dyson ended up carrying out independent research on the cave bacteria.

With a renewed passion for research, Dyson moved to San Diego in 1984 with her husband, TSRI Professor Peter Wright, to take a postdoctoral position in the lab of TSRI Professor Richard Lerner, where she began studying protein folding and intrinsically disordered proteins.

“That was a lot of fun,” said Dyson.

Dyson has now been at TSRI for more than 30 years. In that time, she’s published around 250 papers, and she has received the American Chemical Society’s “Distinguished Scientist Award.” Her work has led to new insights into cancer tumor growth, drug design and many unique proteins in the human body. Dyson’s 2005 Nature review paper, “Intrinsically unstructured proteins and their functions,” co-authored with Wright, serves as a guide for future research in the field.

In a way, Dyson’s career reflects the scientific process of trial and error.

“Nothing is wasted,” said Dyson. “Everything I’ve ever done informs how I live and how I do science.”

Unique Forum

Several NWiS members reflected on Dyson’s lecture.

“I really enjoyed how Dr. Dyson formatted her lecture to highlight all of the relocating she’s done throughout her life for her career,” said TSRI graduate student Danielle Grotjahn, chair of NWiS. “Most postdocs, faculty and graduate student researchers have, at some point, uprooted their lives and moved to a new place for the sake of their research career, so I think the audience really connected with this theme."

“I think the Female Faculty Lecture series is unique in that it’s a career talk, but there’s also a more personal side of it,” added Alyson Smith, a graduate student at TSRI and vice chair of NWiS. “The scientists explain how they went from one step to the next.”

In addition to the ongoing Female Faculty Lecture Series, NWiS holds regular networking sessions, monthly meetings and is planning a coffee hour discussion in May, which all TSRI students, faculty and staff are welcome to attend. For more information on NWiS, visit their Facebook page at

For more information on Dyson, see her biosketch page or laboratory website.

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“My advice is to choose to work on the type of research you enjoy,” says Professor H. Jane Dyson. (Photo by BioMedical Graphics.)