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Joan Countryman Suit with her husband with research equipment

Microbiologist involved in advancing the field of microbial genetics receives alumni award

By Srila Nayak
Microbiologist Joan Suit, OSU alumni

When Joan Countryman Suit (B.S. ’53) started her career as a scientist in the 1950s, molecular biologists had just begun to discover that DNA was the primary genetic material in bacteria and the powerful tools of biotechnology and DNA sequencing were still in the distant future.

After graduating with a degree in microbiology from Oregon State University, Suit did something fairly unusual for women of her era. She headed to Stanford University to study for a doctorate in microbiology. Her studies at Stanford, where she focused on the genetics of bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria), made her develop into an early pioneer in the field of bacterial genetics and molecular biology.

On November 15, she received the College of Science’s Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award. This award recognizes alumni whose exceptional achievements have brought honor, distinction and visibility to the College of Science.

Suit has enjoyed a rewarding career as a scientist for more than three decades at some of the top institutions in the country. At a time when women scientists were scarce, a few excellent teachers at Oregon State inspired her to continue her education. The budding scientist found several of her biology classes and microbiology classes, especially a comparative anatomy course, invaluable.

“I had excellent teachers and terrific support at OSU. I understand that wasn’t the case for many women at the time but I was fortunate to be in a bubble,” Suit observed. “OSU gave me a very good start in life and in my academic life.”

Suit has made important contributions to virology, collaborating with fellow microbiologists during the infancy and rapid growth of the field of bacterial genetics. The latter employs genetic analyses to understand variation in pathogenic microbes and their roles in both causing diseases and producing antibiotics. Beginning her research career as a postdoctoral fellow at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Suit went on to spend nearly 15 years (1957-72) at MD Anderson Cancer Center where she continued her work on DNA and viruses.

She married Herman Suit, a radiation oncologist, in 1960. The couple moved to Boston when Herman was offered a position at Massachusetts General Hospital. Many of Joan’s scientific accomplishments came during her tenure as a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she worked in the biology lab of Dr. Salvador Luria, who won the 1969 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for studies in microbial genetics. Joan was at MIT from 1972 until her retirement in 1989.

The 1970s were an exciting time for Luria and his team of scientists at MIT whose research on disease-causing viruses and the genetic mutations of bacteria laid the foundations of recombinant DNA technologies. Suit reminisced about time spent doing research on DNA expressions and microbes, and interacting with fellow scientists.

“Dr. Luria was an extremely supportive person,” said Suit. “I interacted with both undergraduates and postdoctoral fellows in the lab. It was a very good atmosphere for research and learning.”

Along with Luria and another colleague, Suit was awarded a patent for developing a mutant strain of E. coli that was genetically engineered to produce a specific therapeutic protein more efficiently. In the 1980s, in collaboration with Luria, Suit was also a co-principal investigator on early pioneering genetic and biochemical National Science Foundation-supported studies involving lysis genes and antibiotics released by bacteria called colicins. Suit produced several scientific studies and papers at MIT on the topics of bacterial DNA and RNA, protein antibiotics and bacteriophage mutations.

“As a scientist, my career has covered a very exciting time in my field. I marvel at how far we have come: from a time when we scarcely knew what a gene was to the present day when we are cutting them up and manipulating genes in all sorts of ways,” observed Suit.

“I think of research as an ongoing endeavor to think of questions and see if you can solve them, and that has been very exciting for me.” Now retired, Suit spends time volunteering at a cancer center and serves as a member of the board and as a docent at the Museum of Science in Boston.

Humble Origins

Suit grew up in a farm near Ontario, a small town in eastern Oregon. The second daughter of fruit and dairy farmers, Suit was extremely interested in plants and animals from an early age. Her mother’s love for botany sparked her own interest in nature and science.

More than anything, Suit looked up to her sister, Jean Countryman Smith (B.S. ’43), who was older by thirteen years. She had also studied microbiology at OSU, and during World War II, Jean worked as a microbiologist for Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, California, helping in the production of the new miracle drug, penicillin.

“I thought that was very special and impressive. My choice of what to do in college was all her fault.”

In a significant departure from the norms of the time, Suit’s parents encouraged her to pursue her studies and a career. “They would not have been pleased if I had not gone to college,” laughed Suit. Beginning her education in a two-room school in the countryside, Suit worked her way to OSU and Stanford. She is modest about her achievements. “Fortunately, there was an opening in the microbiology department at Stanford University. I applied and got a fellowship. It did not feel very competitive.”

Creating a legacy for science education

Suit and her husband are deeply committed to giving back to support education and research in science and medicine. They support science students through the SURE Science scholarships, which enable motivated undergraduates to pursue three months of summer research, and the Joan Countryman Suit Scholarship for microbiology graduate students.

Their recent gift of $250,000 has made it possible to create a new state-of-the-art anatomy and physiology teaching lab that will serve hundreds of life science students. The impact of this philanthropic support will be significant.

According to Robert Mason, head of the Department of Integrative Biology, currently, the existing anatomy and physiology labs are oversubscribed due to the growth of several fields of study at OSU who use the anatomy and physiology course in their curriculum.  The new lab will allow more than 700 students to take the human anatomy and physiology laboratory sequence as part of their major.

“We are so excited for our students and so grateful to the Suits for their generosity as they endow this critical teaching laboratory that will result in a quantum shift in our teaching capabilities,” Mason said.

Suit says that her support for science and education is motivated by a simple reason. “To me and to Herman, education is the most important thing we can support because that is where the future lies and we think that science is extremely important for the progress of our society and to seek answers to all sorts of questions.”