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Listen or download interview (mp3, 27 minutes, 25MB)
Were it not for scuba diving, Vicki Chandler might never have become a scientist. She was a twenty-something secretary and single mother of two daughters when she took up the hobby and became fascinated by the complex world of plants and animals she glimpsed underwater. Inspired to study marine biology, she enrolled in a junior college and took her first biology class, where she discovered a passion for genes that sealed her fate. She stopped diving and became a geneticist instead.
After attending the University of California at Berkeley on a full scholarship and completing a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of California, San Francisco, Chandler narrowed her interest to a specific process called paramutation. In paramutation, one form of a gene can silence its partner or alter how it behaves in an organism. The resulting trait can be passed down or inherited even though the organism’s DNA is unchanged, in violation of Mendel’s laws of genetic inheritance. Chandler’s studies on paramutation in the corn plant have deepened science’s understanding of the process and its implications for plant genetics and genetic modification and for animal and human disease.
Chandler is the Chief Program Officer for Science at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2002.
Chandler recalls her parents’ belief in the importance of education and their hopes that she and her sister would be the first in their family to attend college. Chandler takes another path, however, when she marries and has her first child at 17. Divorced with two young daughters at 19, she works as a secretary and longs to go to college, but it’s a beloved hobby—scuba diving—that finally sends her back to school. Despite a counselor’s doubts she could succeed as both a science student and a single mom, Chandler excels in junior college and soon lands a full scholarship to study biochemistry at Berkeley.
Chandler’s curiosity and her varied research experiences in undergraduate and graduate school lead her to gene silencing and paramutation. She turns to corn to explore how the process works and its implications for animals and humans, both of which can experience paramutation. Chandler relates her efforts to balance lab and family, and advises young people in science—particularly young women—to challenge themselves and take risks in order to succeed.
Last Updated: 04-23-2009
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The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.