Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center cell biologist Susan Parkhurst, PhD, was named the second Mark Groudine Endowed Chair for Outstanding Achievements in Science and Service. Established by an anonymous donor in 2016, the chair recognizes the scientific achievements and administrative contributions to Fred Hutch of both Parkhurst and Mark Groudine, MD, PhD.
Parkhurst studies the cytoskeleton, the internal meshwork that helps regulate cell shape and function. The chair recognizes her contributions to our understanding of how this dynamic scaffolding system contributes to wound healing and the architecture of the nucleus, the “room” in which cells house most of their DNA. It also recognizes her leadership at Fred Hutch — including as co-associate director of the Basic Sciences Division — and her efforts to foster the development of early-career scientists.
“I would like to thank [Fred Hutch president and director] Tom [Lynch] and the donor for recognizing Susan’s contributions to the center,” Groudine said. “Susan and I have been longtime collaborators, making this award particularly enjoyable for me.”
The chair, first held by Groudine himself, is named in honor of Groudine’s contributions to science and his service to Fred Hutch. A physician-scientist who also treated cancer patients as a radiation oncologist, Groudine showed how DNA’s packaging and 3D organization regulate the ways that genes are turned on and off. His scientific accomplishments have been recognized by elections to the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He also held several leadership positions at Fred Hutch, including serving for ten years as director of Basic Sciences, for 19 years as Fred Hutch’s deputy director and twice stepping in as the acting president and director.
Sustainable funding sources like endowed chairs give researchers the freedom and flexibility to focus on science, not grant writing. And in Parkhurst’s case, the Groudine Chair will also give her more flexibility to contribute to Fred Hutch and the scientific community.
“Mark does an amazing amount of service in addition to great science,” said Parkhurst, whose four-year stint as Basic Sciences’ co-associate director coincided with Groudine’s tenure as the division’s director. “As a role model, he was inspiring: You could do both of those things and you could make a difference. I’ve tried to do that. So to have the chair be named for him, to be linked to that, is pretty cool.”
She and Groudine collaborated when their interests in nuclear organization and the regulation of gene expression intersected. Together, they showed that a protein already known to be a key regulator of the cytoskeleton also influences gene expression by regulating the 3D organization of the nucleus.
“The chair is a wonderful recognition of Susan’s outstanding accomplishments in both science and service,” said Sue Biggins, PhD, the Basic Sciences Division’s current director. “It is a tribute to Mark that his chair was awarded to one of his collaborators who shares the same spirit of giving to both science and the Hutch.”
The cytoskeleton is a network of long protein fibers that gives a cell its shape. These fibers, which together form a firm but flexible mesh inside the cell, are continuously being broken down and rebuilt to meet the cell’s needs, whether it needs to maintain its shape, move, or even divide into two new cells. Parkhurst is particularly interested in studying what happens when the cell’s scaffolding meets a cellular membrane.
“There’s a membrane, and right below it is the cytoskeleton, and they have to interact so that you can bend to change the cell shape, or for a cell to ingest things,” Parkhurst said.
Her work zeroes in on two areas where this interaction occurs: at a cell’s outer membrane and at its nuclear membrane, which encases most of a cell’s DNA. At a cell’s outermost membrane, the interactions between internal scaffolding and external surface are critical to healing that membrane when it’s damaged or wounded. In the nucleus, the organization of DNA and other biological structures help ensure proper gene regulation, and the cytoskeleton helps establish and maintain that essential organization.
When Parkhurst arrived at Fred Hutch in 1992, she studied transcription factors, proteins that bind to DNA and turn genes on. She used fruit flies to develop genetic screens to identify genes involved in important cellular processes, which eventually led her to the cytoskeleton and wound healing.
“Wound healing was really a draw because no one had done a genetic approach in wound healing,” Parkhurst said.
Studies in wound healing up to that point had been piecemeal. Some factors had been identified, but the big picture remained to be filled in.
“But when you have a genetic system that lets you systematically identify genes, you can look at whole groups of genes,” Parkhurst said. “You can build pathways and take all these things people know about and plug them in. That gives you a real foundation for how things work.”
This kind of understanding is crucial if you’re looking to fix a broken process, she said. If one biological repair process doesn’t work in a particular disease, a deeper understanding of the other repair processes could reveal how to trigger a different repair process and bypass the breakdown.
In each system that Parkhurst studies, time and space are critical pieces of the puzzle. The right components must come together in the right sequence to heal a damaged membrane. The molecular machines that turn genes on must assemble at the correct location, at the correct time and in the correct order. Parkhurst’s systematic approach enables her team to not only identify the molecular players in wound healing and nuclear organization, but also to figure out when and where each one plays its part.
“Susan goes where the science leads her. Whether it is nuclear organization or wound healing, she’s at the top of her game,” Groudine said.
Reflecting her scientific accomplishments, Parkhurst is a member of the Society for Developmental Biology, the Genetics Society of America, the American Society of Cell Biologists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Though Parkhurst still performs experiments at the bench, her commitments extend far beyond the boundaries of her own laboratory. In addition to her 2000 to 2004 stint as Basic Sciences co-associate director, she's sat on the division’s executive committee since 2015. She attributes much of her service activities to her experience as an associate director and to Groudine’s example.
“It opened my eyes … and made it clear that there were places where I could make a difference,” she said. “I think part of science is, you have to give back. Everybody has to do their part. I saw that early on and was able to choose the things that I really cared about.”
Shortly after joining Fred Hutch, she helped establish the joint Fred Hutch/University of Washington Molecular and Cellular Biology graduate program and has been a member of the Fred Hutch Graduate Affairs Committee since 1993. With Palmira Guevara, PhD, a visiting scientist from Venezuela, she also established a collaboration to bring promising young Venezuelan scientists to train in her lab.
Though much of Parkhurst’s activities focus on helping young scientists get the best start possible, colleagues at every stage have benefited from her scientific acumen.
“Like Mark, Susan is extremely dedicated to the culture of the Basic Sciences Division and to fostering the culture to help everyone succeed,” Biggins said. “She is selfless with her time to help colleagues and is well known for making extremely insightful and helpful suggestions on grants. Susan has an uncanny ability to cut to the heart of the issue in any grant and improve it regardless of the topic.”
Groudine himself has firsthand knowledge of Parkhurst’s extraordinary mentorship, he said.
When he and Parkhurst first teamed up, Groudine had never worked with fruit flies before, while Parkhurst had well-established expertise with the tiny insects.
“She taught me (or tried to teach me) fly biology and genetics,” Groudine said.
Her coaching extended from designing and conducting experiments to writing the grants needed to fund them.
“This meant members of my lab and me writing draft after draft after draft until Susan was satisfied we had a fundable proposal — and thanks to her mentorship, the grant was funded,” Groudine said.
For 18 years, Parkhurst also represented the interests of Fred Hutch — not merely her home division — as a member of the steering committee for the National Cancer Institute grant that supports the Fred Hutch/University of Washington/Seattle Children’s Cancer Consortium, the NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center of which Fred Hutch is a member.
Perhaps closest to Groudine’s heart is Parkhurst’s work as chair of the committee for the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award. The award honors Harold Weintraub, MD, PhD, the pioneering scientist who helped found the Basic Sciences Division and was Groudine’s close friend and colleague. Weintraub, whose seminal contributions to biology stretched from chromosome structure to the discovery of master regulators that control developmental programs, died in 1995. He was just 49.
“When I first came to the Hutch, I had joint lab meetings with Hal. I didn’t have a long association with him, but it was very intense. It was really clear to me how much he cared about people and the people in his lab,” Parkhurst said.
She helped establish the award and symposium in his honor in 1999 and has remained at the helm ever since.
“It is hard to imagine the success this award and symposium have achieved without Susan’s guidance,” Groudine said. “A long-time collaborator getting this chair in part to recognize her work to honor my longtime friend and collaborator Hal Weintraub: What could be sweeter?”
As the Groudine Chair, Parkhurst is among 33 Fred Hutch researchers whose science is accelerated by an endowed chair.
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington, an MA in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at email@example.com.