Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics
Girl Geeks/My Story
Essien, Francine
Professor (Retired)

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Ph.D., Yeshiva University

Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, School of Arts and Sciences, New Brunswick; Rutgers

Areas of Interest: Developmental Biology, Genetics, and Analysis of Birth Defects.

Francine's Story
When I think back, I canít remember the first time I became interested in science. Even as a little girl, I was drawn to science and medicine. My friends, family, and I just assumed that I would become a medical doctor. We didnít know of anything else.

A friend of mine and I decided to volunteer at a local hospital in Philadelphia as candy stripers. We did not have the carfare to take public transportation, so we walked the several miles to and from the hospital. My friend was interested in becoming a nurse and I, of course, was interested in becoming a doctor. This was my first experience working closely with medical professionals and it was important because it showed me not only what I did like about working in the hospital, but more significantly, what I did NOT like. I realized then that I really did not want to become a medical doctor. The interest in science, however, continued throughout high school, college, and ultimately graduate school.

I was very fortunate in that I always had the support of my family, friends, and community. I wish that all young women and men could have broad-based support with regard to their aspirations. For me, this extended from elementary school through all levels of my education. It was vital to my success.

I was also fortunate to have both male and female teachers. A teacher in junior high school recommended me for acceptance to a special academic high school for girls in Philadelphia. I received an excellent educ
Essien, Francine
ation and had experiences there that became fundamental in my education as a scientist. Further, the counselors and teachers were instrumental in helping me obtain a full scholarship to Temple University.

As an undergraduate at Temple, I took a genetics course with Professor Ralph Hillman.
I fell in love with the subject material and he suggested that I take his graduate course. I enrolled and, despite being the only undergraduate in the class, did quite well. One day, Dr. Hillman received a call from a local childrenís hospital, asking him to recommend a student to work in the cytogenetics laboratory there. He recommended me, and I am, to this day, very thankful for his faith in my potential.

I began working in the hospital lab under the supervision of Dr. Hope Punnett. She gave me an opportunity to learn many lab procedures and to work independently whenever possible. It was supposed to be only a summer job, but she asked me to continue working part-time through graduation.

I was interested in genetics and developmental biology and selected the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (Yeshiva University) for graduate study. The head of the Department of Genetics was Dr. Salome Waelsch, who had a great reputation as a scientist. This was one of the factors that attracted me to the program. She encouraged and supported me while also providing me with special opportunities. For example, she sent me to scientific conferences around the country where I gained valuable exposure.

After receiving my doctoral degree, I continued my training as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut (Storrs). Subsequently, my graduate mentor recommended me for a tenure-track faculty position in the Department of Biological Sciences at Douglass College (Rutgers University, N.J.). When I joined the department, there were two outstanding women scientists who greatly impressed me, Dr. Charlotte Avers, the head of the department, and Dr. Evelyn Witkin, a world renown microbiologist. The department was small, but the faculty members were very supportive, not only of me, a young, green professor, but also of the undergrads and graduate students.

I had never taught, aside from acting as a teaching assistant in graduate school, and now I found myself teaching general biology, prenatal development, and graduate courses in development and genetics. Another component of my position as a faculty member was to mentor graduate and undergraduate students in the laboratory. Over the years that I was at Rutgers, a number of students worked with me in the lab. Several of those students made such contributions to the research that I listed them as co-authors on my publications.

The genetic control of development is fascinating. We start from a single cell and become extremely complex individuals. In my lab we asked questions, such as: How do genes control development? How do things go so well most of the time? What goes wrong in terms of genes and/or the environment to cause birth defects? I studied the effects of abnormal genes on developmental processes, using the mouse as my experimental material. Several mutations were discovered in my lab, such as one involved in heart development and function, another controlling tracheal formation, and one affecting the central nervous system, causing spina bifida.

Colleagues (in academia and industry) and I were acutely aware of the fact that in the sciences, engineering and other technological fields there was not adequate representation of minorities and women. Individuals from diverse backgrounds who were at economic disadvantage were underrepresented, as well. We were concerned about the pools of talent that were not being reached. I became involved in academic advising programs, but that was not enough. Dr. Emmett Dennis, Dr. Kamal Khan, and I initiated the Success in the Sciences program for undergraduates at all of the colleges on the New Brunswick and Piscataway campuses. In addition, we cooperated with faculty members at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (UMDNJ) and established the Access Med and Biomedical Careers programs. We all are extremely proud of the young women and men who went on to realize their dreams.

The best part of my career was that I was able to do the teaching I loved, work with students in the lab, and attempt to address a broader social issue. Overall, I would have to say, Iíve had a good run.
Transcribed from an interview with Christina Leshko.