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Susan Taylor

Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry, UC San Diego

Susan S. Taylor (b. 1942) explores the structures of enzymes that control the bodily changes taking place over a person’s lifetime, such as the enzymes that stimulate memory and growth. She and her team at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) are clearing a path to new drugs that can fight disease.

Taylor studies a type of enzyme called a protein kinase. She is well known for having determined the molecular structure of a particular enzyme called protein kinase C. Her research group studies molecules called signals, which interact with protein kinases. A signal molecule “tells” or “signals” a kinase to start working and to stop. Taylor’s group hopes to learn how to control the interaction between signals and protein kinases because malfunctioning protein kinases are thought to play a role in cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Taylor never planned on a career as a research scientist. As a child in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she wanted to become a medical doctor. She majored in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, inspired by a good chemistry professor named Charles Sorum. She intended to enroll in medical school after graduation, but in her senior year her life took a twist. Her fiancé took a job at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and Taylor had not applied to any schools in that part of the country. Johns Hopkins University, in nearby Baltimore, might have been a good choice, but by the time she became engaged, the application deadline for the medical school had passed. Instead, she applied to their graduate school, was accepted, and studied physiological chemistry. Yet even when she graduated with her Ph.D. in 1968, she still had her sights set on medicine.

Now married, her husband’s career once again altered her plans to become a medical doctor. He had decided to travel to Cambridge University in the United Kingdom for further study. Taylor put her plans on hold and took a postdoctoral job at Cambridge. It was there that she began to do research on proteins. She fell in love with protein chemistry, and only after many years as a practicing chemist, did she finally shelve her medical school plans for good. Later, when her husband took a faculty position at UCSD in 1971, she returned to the United States with him. At first she did more postdoctoral work at UCSD, but after about a year she was hired as a professor.

More than 30 years and three children later, Taylor still studies proteins at UCSD. Taylor has earned many honors in her career. Most notably, she became a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the Institute of Medicine in 1996.

Taylor did not set a rigid career plan for herself. She took risks by following her interests. She says of her experience: “My life has been a series of these little chances, very serendipitous.”