Suzanne Eaton: In memory of a remarkable colleague

As a tribute to Suzanne Eaton’s many contributions to science and to scientists, we asked several of her colleagues to reflect on her work and life.

We have all been deeply affected by the recent death of Suzanne Eaton (1959–2019), who served as a Reviewing Editor at eLife for several years. Her home institution, the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, is collecting tributes from scientists, friends and family, and we point you there to read more about this remarkable woman.

Tom Kornberg, UCSF, Suzanne’s Postdoctoral Advisor

Suzanne was a graduate student at UCLA from 1981–88 where she worked in the lab of Kathryn Calame. This was an exciting era when immunologists were beginning to understand the molecular basis for immunological memory and affinity maturation, and in her thesis research Suzanne identified promoter sequences that likely account for the transcription of Ig variable genes. As a postdoc Suzanne moved to my lab at UCSF, where we were investigating the genetic basis of segmentation and patterning in Drosophila. We had recently cloned the engrailed gene and shown that it encodes a homeodomain-containing transcription factor expressed only in cells of posterior developmental compartments. Suzanne carried out a screen for other genes that are expressed in compartment-specific patterns that might be targets of Engrailed regulation. She found two, one expressed exclusively in anterior compartments and the other in posterior compartments; we now know them as cubitus interruptus (ci) and hedgehog (hh). She focused on ci, cloning it and showing that its expression is regulated negatively by engrailed and is specific to anterior developmental compartments of Drosophila embryos and imaginal discs. Suzanne generously provided Tetsuya Tabata, another postdoctoral fellow in the lab, with her flies and reagents for hh, and they co-authored the paper that describes their cloning and initial characterizations of hh.

In 1993, Suzanne moved to the EMBL together with her husband, Tony Hyman, and worked for several years in the lab of Kai Simons, expanded her research and interest to actin-dependent processes in the Drosophila wing disc epithelium and to lipid-linked proteins and lipid raft microdomains. The themes of her training – gene regulation, Hh, development, lipids, epithelia – continued, grew, and developed as she directed her own laboratory at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. She followed these interests as she worked to understand major, unsolved questions. Her lab investigated roles of lipoprotein particles and steroids in cell-cell signaling, molecular mechanisms in epithelial planar polarity, relationships between lipids, diet, and cold survival, and the influences of cell dynamics, epithelial viscoelasticity and tension on tissue architecture.

Suzanne’s unique vision and perspective provided thematic unity to this remarkable variety of topics. We can all appreciate that this oeuvre is distinguished by its imagination, clarity, and unusual breadth, but those of us who knew Suzanne also saw how wonderfully it was imbued with her joy and exuberance.

Rebecca Heald, University of California, Berkeley, Suzanne’s colleague at EMBL

It is heartbreaking to write about Suzanne in the past tense. Many of us feel our lives were enriched immeasurably by having Suzanne as a colleague and friend. Suzanne’s career was amazing not only for the discoveries she made, but also for the caring mentorship she provided to her colleagues and the members of her lab. Suzanne possessed a grace and sweetness that one rarely encounters. She loved complicated things and was a master at many of them, like playing concertos on the piano, cooking fabulous dishes without a recipe, and achieving a black belt in Taekwondo. She meant so much to those who knew her, and the legacy of her scientific achievements will continue to inspire an entire field of biologists.

When we were in our 30s and postdocs at the EMBL in Germany, Suzanne taught me many important things. I emulated her as best I could, though her beauty, charm and talents far exceeded my potential. From her I learned how to make the best margaritas using fresh limes that were difficult to find in the large quantities needed for a lab party. She inspired me to become a cyclist, and together we went on many rides, including an epic tour in the south of France that is one of my best ever memories. At that time we were both uncertain about what the future held for our lives and careers, and we set off under our own power into the beautiful countryside, navigating our own path and feeling entirely self-sufficient. Suzanne was pregnant with Max at the time, but that was no obstacle. This trip taught me that I could do things I wasn’t sure I was capable of. And our deep friendship helped me become a stronger, more loving and outgoing person.

Although we have not lived on the same continent for nearly two decades, over the years Suzanne and I met for bike rides in Europe and when she visited her family in California. Her impact on my life was monumental. If Suzanne had not turned me on to cycling I would not have met my husband on a bike tour in Italy. Suzanne had incredible style, and taught me that it was possible to be a scientist and feminine at the same time. Although she was in Germany when I was married in City Hall in San Francisco, she was with me in France years before when I bought the dress I wore. Suzanne had a suitcase that doubled as a scooter. Suzanne could read an Anthony Trollope novel in one sitting, and loved books of all kinds. She introduced me to some of my favorites, including “The Guns of August”. Suzanne loved science fiction and particularly Star Trek. We joked that with her sons she had produced both a Spock (Max) and a Kirk (Luke). Suzanne loved her family beyond all measure. And we all loved her.

Frank Jülicher, Suzanne’s colleague in Dresden

During the last 15 years Suzanne and my labs had weekly joint group meetings to explore the riddles of how tissues form, remodel and find their shape. These meetings had a special atmosphere with biologists and physicists discussing informally, but with dedication and depth, questions of biology, the latest experiments, enormous collections of data, fundamental ideas from theory, general concepts from physics and much more. Everybody was willing to delve deep into the questions of others, their methods and ideas. There always was a lot of excitement and passion for the research work of the groups and everybody was eager not to miss a meeting. Suzanne’s curiosity and her passion for science was an example to all. Her insightful questions and her broad experience and deep knowledge guided challenging projects. When difficulties arose and we were seemingly stuck, her patience and persistence brought us back on track and apparently impenetrable obstacles could be overcome.

Suzanne played a key role in making the Dresden Cluster of Excellence “Physics of Life” possible. She was a role model of a biologist with intellectual breadth, passion for science and a keen interest to unravel the riddles of life. She was always eager to make use of novel approaches and she had a strong motivation to view biological phenomena as part of the physical world. Suzanne had very original ideas about the role of mechanics, energetics and thermodynamics in morphogenetic and metabolic processes and the role of temperature in biology which led her to develop research projects that pursued fundamental questions of life that were unique in their original angles.

Peter Lawrence, University of Cambridge

The Orthodox Academy in northwestern Crete, near the village of Kolymbari is a gentle peaceful place; the dulcet and misty sea in the early morning, the put-put of the little fishing boat. Over 50 years I have been there many times to scientific conferences and the overwhelming, consistent and lasting impression is of tradition, of the warmth of the people in the thyme-scented air. We all felt we were in a haven of safety and of trust and we never locked our door. The scientific gatherings responded to this special atmosphere, old rivalries were muted, information and opinion freely shared and for that one special week we tried to build an academe for women and for men “still and contemplative in living art”.

Suzanne Eaton had been to Kolymbari several times before and surely felt completely at home and in safety as she set off on a familiar run. Later there was a momentous and dreadful intervention.

This small tribute is also a plea that we work to keep our image of the Academy untarnished by what is a separate story of pain and cruelty, to ask those who knew and loved Suzanne to help us achieve this. That in honouring Suzanne’s memory we believe she would want us to conserve her and our true experiences and impressions of the Academy, symbolised by the cactus and jasmine flowers, the sounds of the sea, the intellectual freedom and the unlocked doors.