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A Passion for Discovery – Amy Weinmann

Aug 2010 | Sara 1,254 Comments

Whether she’s doing research or moving across the country, Amy Weinmann lets her passion drive her wherever it sees fit. “I never plan where I want to be five years from now,” says the immunology professor. Yet it’s clear that the one place she does not want to be is stuck in an office – every day she does experiments alongside the rest of her lab.

“I work really hard because I love it,” says Amy. “I never want to wait to see the answer, I want to know now…. How many people can actually say they love what they do?”

Born in small town Minnesota, Amy felt drawn to science after being inspired by a chemistry teacher. “I always liked the discovery,” she says, although research was a dream she had to defer due to a lack of opportunities at her small university. But after completing an undergraduate summer project at the Mayo Clinic – her only formal research experience – she applied to and was accepted into UCLA’s graduate program. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she says, wearing her Bruins sweatshirt. “I just had a gut feeling that this was where I needed to be.”

After completing her Ph.D. and a postdoc, Amy had always assumed she’d return to Minnesota and teach at a small college. But when the time came to choose between that and research, UW made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: a tenure track position at the age of 29. “It was just such a great university,“ she says, adding that she had never even been to Seattle before. She didn’t let that bother her though, figuring that “people are interesting everywhere.”

Her impulsive choice turned out to be a good choice. She quickly found that she enjoys Seattle’s proximity to nature and the “peacefulness of being around water.” Perhaps best of all, she was able to people her new lab with researchers as passionate about their work as she. “We’re hard working, but it’s about balance,” Amy says of her lab. “You can’t work for me, your work has to come from you, your own passions. Everyone is different and my challenge is how to push someone to reach their passion.”

The Weinmann group is studying how general transcription factors can use the same DNA to drive cellular differentiation, and uses the T-box family of developmental transcription factors as a model. What started as a question of immune cell differentiation has extended to encompass development, chromatin remodeling, and computational biology as each person in the lab chose to attack the problem from his or her own unique angle. “I think it’s more fun that way,” says Amy.

Only ten years after she herself finished graduate school, Amy’s first student, Sarah Miller of MCB, defended her thesis in April and is now off to a postdoc at Harvard after publishing a heavily cited paper in Genes & Development. Another MCB student, Albert Huang, is currently studying with her under dual mentorship at ISB. Amy says that what she loves best about mentoring students is the excitement of watching them learn how to think and to drive their own science.

“Early on, it’s much more hands-on, but eventually it starts to flip and by the end, the student knows way more than I do. It’s a proud moment when they’re on their own.” And like a proud parent, she describes her small lab as “a family,” complete with dinners on the Ave and frequent debates over everything from politics to sports. “We’re a very Minnesota Vikings-oriented lab,” she warns.

In addition to following professional sports, Amy played volleyball throughout high school and college and she cites her high school volleyball coach as one of the influential people in her life. “The mental discipline of sports fits well with science. It’s always a work in progress; you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished, but at the same time striving to do better and learn more,” she says.

Her advice to students who want to do research: Don’t let anyone scare you. “People always intimidate you: there’s no jobs, this is too hard, nobody gets grants. I don’t like not doing things because of fear. If you really want it, you should do it.“

One last question, what would she be if she weren’t a scientist? Amy has a tough time deciding, but eventually says she’d be a motivational speaker, trying to help people reach their potential. “Everybody goes through difficult times in life and it’s so sad when people let that get them down. I want to help get everyone past the hard part to what they’re meant to be.”

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