Karen Linder

Helena Axelrod

Margaret Bisher

Corrections or additions?


Princeton’s laboratories aren’t devoid of politics, But

results speak more clearly than gender

This article by Phyllis M. Maguire was published in U.S. 1

Newspaper on January 21, 1998. All rights reserved

In Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, the central character,

a Canadian artist named Elaine, spends her early childhood camping

with her father, her mother, and older brother, Stephen. With Stephen

as her one companion, she learns to excel at games with outcomes that

are verifiable: who can run faster or throw a ball farther. Moving

to Toronto and making friends with girls for the first time, she is

at a loss how to "win" at girls’ games. Finally she cracks

their code: "All I have to do is sit on the floor and cut frying

pans out of the Eaton’s Catalogue with embroidery scissors, and say

I’ve done it badly."

The women profiled in this year’s "Women In Business" issue

spent little time pretending to do anything badly. But as scientists,

their careers have been propelled by producing quantifiable results.

"That is not to say the laboratory is free from politics,"

warns Karen Linder at Bracco Research USA. "But scientific


are driven by objectives. The teams that reach goals are certainly

judged better than the ones that don’t." Each of these women —

Linder, Helena Axelrod of Transcell Technologies, Margaret Bisher

of NEC Research Institute, and Maya Gokhale of Sarnoff Corporation

— straddle several fields of science and technology, running


races as swiftly as any of their colleagues and swelling the numbers

of women in Princeton’s rich scientific community.

Top Of PageKaren Linder

There are odd moments when she toys with the notion

of moving into another area of business, like marketing. But


Karen Linder, research fellow and project team leader at Bracco’s

305 College Road laboratory, can’t get past the fact that research

is not only more fun, but potentially more powerful. "Research

is really a company’s pipeline," she says, after more than 20

years developing compounds used in nuclear medicine and magnetic


imaging. "In research, you influence business in a very direct

way." You also ride an accelerated roller coaster of technology

and competition.

"I don’t think I’ve had two weeks in my professional life that

were the same," says the New England native, "so flexibility

is an absolute must. Every new potential product or compound has its

own area of chemistry, biology, and medicine to be mastered, and new

techniques to be learned." While she now sees more resumes from

women for research, Linder claims the corporate research environment

has changed.

"There is much more of a matrix feel to it," she says.


are moving toward capping the number of permanent employees. They

contract work out or hire temporary staff, or they have employees

figure things out for themselves. The days when teams of experts were

hired are definitely over. Now you must become the expert


Linder’s own career has been one of sustained satisfaction. "There

is a very strong respect for skill and proficiency at Bracco,"

she says of her current employer. The company has "a flat


without much room to grow as far as formal hierarchy," and the

only level beyond her immediate boss’s is filled by Bracco’s


Michael Tweedle. "I’d like to have my boss’s job and he knows

it," Linder laughs, "but I’m very comfortable in the position

I’m in. I have all the responsibility I want and then some."

She credits an element of serendipity in her career, though passion

and excellence have clearly played a part. She grew up in Cambridge,

Massachusetts, with a keen interest in nature — and medicine,

"because there are many nurses in my family. But I didn’t want

to be a nurse. I prefer dealing with things rather than people."

One of those nurses was her mother, "a pretty powerful role model.

Working was definitely expected for the women in my family."


also thrived in the lush hothouse of education Cambridge had to offer,

attending the Peabody School where "we got to be guinea pigs for

all sorts of pilot science lab programs, neat stuff most students

wouldn’t see." Linder later received an excellent science


at Weston High School, and now credits her biology teacher, Susan

Meiry, as a mentor who offered "enthusiasm, encouragement, and

a nice approach to science."

Graduating from Northeastern University in 1976 with a bachelor’s

in biology, Linder expected to go into teaching herself. Instead she

went to work for New England Nuclear, developing radioactive compounds

that localize in a particular tissue or organ for diagnostic purposes,

working fulltime while earning a master’s from Northeastern in


chemistry in 1982.

It was at New England Nuclear that she first worked with the


metal technetium, the element used in most nuclear medicine agents.

That was when Linder found her calling in inorganic chemistry. "I

was doing organic chemistry at the time, very badly," she recalls.

"A project came in that nobody else was available to do and I

said I’d like to try. From then on, until I left the company, I could

do no wrong. I was working by the seat of my pants, making valuable

contributions, and the compounds were so pretty! The first time I

saw crystals of a technetium complex under the microscope, I was sold.

They were beautiful reddish orange rubies that were just lovely to

look at."

She took a leave of absence to pursue a Ph.D. at MIT. "I had had

no formal training in what I was doing, not even a course, so I knew

there was a lot to learn. Plus the company had been acquired by


and it was clear you wouldn’t get anyplace in DuPont without a


By the time Linder received her doctorate in 1986, DuPont had declared

a hiring freeze, and there were only a handful of places in the world

where she could pursue technetium chemistry. One was at E. R. Squibb

in Princeton, bringing her "kicking and screaming" to New


In the 11 years since she arrived, E. R. Squibb became the


Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute before the diagnostic


was spun off as Bracco Research USA Inc. Along the way, Linder had

been promoted from an entry-level research investigator to research

fellow. She is currently a project team leader in an interdisciplinary

research group charged with the discovery of new targeted imaging

agents for use in nuclear medicine and magnetic resonance imaging


And MRI research is a relatively new area for her. The

technique was first attempted in the 1970s, and Linder saw her first

MRI image at a nuclear medicine conference in 1980. "It was a

magnetic resonance image of an orange, with all the seeds and


she says. "Within a very short time, MRI progressed from a


tool to a clinical technique that is very widely used, and the two

fields — MRI and nuclear medicine — are complementary.


resonance imaging gives very pretty anatomical images with sharp


Nuclear medicine has lousy resolution, but it gives beautiful


about biochemistry." Both procedures are essential diagnostic

tools, particularly in cardiology, neurology, oncology, and


Linder’s workday typically lasts from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with


stints of travel every year. Half her work is administrative, while

the rest is devoted to research "or interacting with the team

in some way. The research projects I take on now are significantly

less complicated than the ones I had earlier. As a manager, I don’t

have the time to focus the effort you need to solve the hard problems,

and I feel that as a loss. But I recognize it’s part of management

and I let it go. My favorite thing still is to pick apart chemical

reactions and figure out what makes them tick. The small,


work is what I like best — but I do the big picture very well

too, because that’s what they want me to do." She is an avid


and founded the Kingston Garden Club this past fall. Like the other

women profiled, Linder has been offered jobs around the country —

including positions in New England, but the once reluctant transferee

now won’t move. "My work environment and the stimulation of our

research are big reasons to stay. And the fact that I’ve got 1,500

bulbs, a bunch of trees, and a gorgeous garden has me rooted."

Never married, Linder has no regrets about not having children.


was never something I ever considered except in passing. My compounds

were my babies, and I think it would have been very hard, at least

at certain periods in my life, to make a heavy-duty career commitment

and care for a family." She is particularly proud of "unique

molecules, compounds that I’ve worked on, that have gone to clinical

trials or been turned into drugs," and her strategy for success

extends well beyond the realm of science.

"Always be open for growth and more opportunity. People above

you are always overworked and looking for someone to off-load on.

If you are there to do it, you end up with their undying gratitude.

Accept all the responsibility you can take."

Linder does see some differences in the leadership styles of men and

women. "I have had very few women role models to compare myself

to," she continues, "but most men seem to spend less time

seeking consensus or drawing people out than I know I do. My skills

as a facilitator and communicator feel like pretty feminine parts

of myself, and they have certainly been appreciated rather than


at. The process of gaining consensus stimulates creativity, and that’s

one of the things that makes a team run."

Top Of PageHelena Axelrod

Helena Axelrod knows when to seek consensus — and

when not. "I’ve seen so much individual variation that I have

a hard time saying there is any gender approach to how people deal

with people. Consensus-building is necessary, but sometimes the


issue is setting the right direction. Vision is important in this

business." As director of biological research for Transcell


a 35 member research firm at 8 Cedarbrook Drive at Exit 8A, Axelrod’s

vision is essential to her position and career.

Transcell was founded in 1991 by Princeton University researchers

Daniel Kahne and Suzanne Walker, who persuaded a private investor

to make their lab technology a commercial entity. "Carbohydrate

chemistry is the core of our technology," Axelrod explains.


company was founded around our ability to make new sugars and to link

them together rapidly in many combinations to build new families of

drugs." Transcell produces thousands of these new molecules at

a time, taking a number of building blocks and combining them in


ways simultaneously. "We then identity those molecules that act

to kill bacteria by a process called high throughput screening,’"

says Axelrod. "Using robots, we can quickly pick out the most

effective ones."

Another area of research is in enhanced drug delivery. A


molecule the company developed can be combined with drug compounds

and applied to medications now available only by injection in a


setting, making them more widely available and inexpensive as pills

or nose sprays. "One of the drugs we worked on is the antibiotic

gentamycin," Axelrod says. "It has a broad spectrum of


against many different kinds of bacteria. As a pill, it would be more

consumer-friendly and used against more diseases." Another


Axelrod cites is calcitonin, a peptide hormone — peptides being

a short portion of proteins. "Calcitonin is an agent for


bone mass. Peptides are organic substances and are normally not taken

orally since they get broken down too easily and not absorbed. By

combining them with the drug delivery molecules we’ve developed, we

promote their absorption, so enough calcitonin can get in the blood

to the bone to help it grow."

The unique chemistry Transcell developed has led to the synthesis

of a number of compounds for drug and DNA delivery — to be


by other companies. "We cannot take the technology to the next

phase, which is animal and human work," Axelrod says. "We’re

a research organization, not a development company. We get particular

products to a certain stage and then find partners to develop them

commercially." Helping find those business partners is going to

be Axelrod’s next career challenge, after 14 years of academic


and 11 years of pharmaceutical research and development.

She grew up in Brooklyn where her mother was an accountant and her

father was a manager in a grocery store. Axelrod "very


remembers being bitten by the science bug. "It happened in 10th

grade," she recalls. "I had a biology teacher who was the

first person who made science at all appealing. Before that I hated

science, and my great passion was to become an artist. But this


asked questions instead of presenting facts, and that was really


It was the first time I realized there were some very important,



She graduated from Brooklyn College in 1972 with a dual major in


and chemistry and entered the Ph.D. program at Princeton University’s

biology department, doing her doctorate on cancer-causing animal


Her first postdoctoral position was at New York’s Memorial


Cancer Institute. She went to the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia

for research in embryology and immunology, and accepted a position

at Interferon Sciences in New Brunswick. The move brought Axelrod

back to the Princeton area and signaled a shift from basic to applied


"I wasn’t feeling satisfied in the academic sphere," she says.

"One reason was my frustration getting grant money. The amount

of time you had to devote to writing grants instead of doing


work was enormous. I also wanted work that would lead more directly

to medical benefits. What I was doing would eventually get applied,

but I wanted something more immediate."

Her work at Interferon was research-based, "but as time went on,

we spent more effort supporting the FDA application of interferon

as a drug, characterizing its activity and understanding how it


More cancer research followed at Cytogen Corporation where Axelrod

was promoted internally, "from a bench scientist performing my

own lab work to overseeing other people’s work. I always felt my


were in management and I did want to move up." She moved to


in 1993, and while Axelrod is in charge of the Biological Research

Department and project teams, "I’ve become very interested in

the business side of the company. There aren’t that many therapeutic

areas we can tackle on our own, but we can certainly apply our


and unique compounds to different areas. My mission will be to


them and play matchmaker."

It has been a career — like the others here profiled — with

no part-time component or mommy track. Axelrod shares the logistical

challenges of raising a 12-year-old son with her husband, David, an

associate professor of microbiology and genetics at Rutgers


and the fact that they are both scientists brings mutual


"We can appreciate each other’s accomplishments and some of the

frustrations," she says. "It’s easier to support each other

because we know what our jobs entail." Axelrod finds the Princeton

area particularly attractive to two career science couples. "It’s

easier to attract couples because the prospect of both of them getting

jobs with a reasonable commute is fairly high. That is a serious


Her most important research contribution was the development of


to establish mouse embryonic cell lines that have aided in the study

of genetic diseases. "In terms of my career in the pharmaceutical

industry, I played a part in getting FDA approval for interferon and

putting two cancer products into clinical trials." At Transcell,

Axelrod is particularly proud of her role in investigating their drug

delivery agents and in discovering new antibiotics. And while her

own career has led from pure to applied research, she applauds the

recently proposed hikes in federal funding for medical research.

"People don’t realize that investing in research —


research institutes, medical schools — has very wide repercussions

for all aspects of drug development and medical care," she says.

"The medical community is very interrelated. When there are


in funding — and there have been over the last 10 years, with

research funds getting squeezed out of health care — it means

future advances are going to be few and far between."

Top Of PageMargaret Bisher

In almost 20 years spent with the National Institutes

of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and with NEC Research Institute Inc.

at 4 Independence Way in Princeton, Margaret Bisher has never strayed

from basic research. "I’ve been very fortunate in the jobs I’ve

had. It’s unusual to be able to do basic research without the constant

pressure of `how many millions of dollars can you make?’

"Not that we can just be mad scientists," she laughs. "We

do have annual reports and we must justify our existence. But basic

research" — as opposed to applied, which is geared to


a specific product or procedure — "is discovery by accident.

Even though there are demands, this is more of a think-tank


where we’re allowed to be more creative and given more freedom."

The NEC Research Institute was established in 1989 as the American

research arm of NEC, the Japanese computer giant. Institute teams

in computer science study computer architecture and intelligence,

image processing and perceptual organization. In physical science,

researchers probe bio- and condensed matter physics, optics and


electronics. Bisher is part of the Physical Sciences Research group,

working in condensed matter physics.

"I’m doing materials science, studying the structure of


she says. "While there are people here who work on theory, I’m

an experimentalist. My job is to take any interesting material and

examine its structure at the atomic level." The tool she uses

is an 10-foot tall electron microscope. "There is a filament at

the top to which a high voltage is applied," Bisher explains.

"Electrons come off the filament and travel down the column,


through a thin sample placed in the path of the electrons. That


an image onto a screen. The microscope works much like a slide project

— except we use electrons instead of light and thinned samples

instead of slides." Since it transmits electrons through the


the instrument is known as a transmission electron microscope or TEM,

seeing into the molecular structure of cells and the atomic structure

of materials.

"You sit at the bottom of the column, looking through


Bisher says of her TEM work. "The room is usually dark because

the microscope is taking pictures. It looks like Mission Control with

all sorts of lights and buttons and knobs. Some you move manually;

others are computer-controlled. We have four computers on the


and each does something a little different."

The samples Bisher studies are carbon nanotubes, tiny, molecular


rods. These rods are "stretched out" versions of the carbon-60

"buckyball" that looks like a soccer ball, but is 10 billion

times smaller. What is Bisher looking for by studying nanotubes?


really don’t know," she says, comfortable in the free zone of

fundamental research where the concept of failure is irrelevant.


could say nanotubes are the world’s thinnest wires. We know they are

carbon in their basic structure and formula, very strong and hard,

but we’re finding they have different properties when decorated with

different materials. We don’t really know how they might eventually

be applied, but the race is on to find out."

Bisher switched to physics after a dozen years of research in biology

— but she grew up being adaptable. Her father was an Air Force

pilot, and though he served six tours in Vietnam, he didn’t want his

family stationed overseas. They did live in Ohio and Texas, but mostly

hopped around California among various bases.

"By the time I went to college, I’d been in 13 different schools

— three in third grade alone," Bisher says. Her first work

with a microscope came in high school biology. By the time she was

in high school, her father had retired from the military and the


had moved to New Jersey where he became an American Airlines pilot

flying out of New York. Through early admissions, Bisher knew by her

senior year that she’d been accepted to Boston University, "and

the only two subjects required by the state of New Jersey were English

and P. E. My last year in high school, I signed up for classes like

psychology and sociology and drafting, neat things I never took


but in two weeks, I hated every one. I dropped them all and switched

over to advanced biology, Physics II, and calculus. Then I was


Bisher majored in microbiology at B. U. and recalls with relish a

lecture given by Isaac Asimov, "an odd character and very


man." But she proved to be an unconventional student. "I went

to school and got disillusioned. I thought, ‘Why am I spending all

this effort and where is it going to get me?’" She left school

after two and a half years, returning to New Jersey to work for CITGO

— "that’s when I learned a lot of my physical chemistry"

— while taking courses at Rutgers. When she finished her


in 1985 at the University of Maryland, she was attending school


while working full-time for the NIH under a cooperative learning


She stayed at NIH until 1991.

"I studied the structure of viruses, everything from herpes to

rabies to chicken pox and portions of the AIDS virus. My job was to

report on what each looked like and to define its structure."

Though her NIH supervisor encouraged her to get a Ph.D., Bisher


against it, and claims the decision hasn’t hampered her career. "I

have almost 20 years of experience, which will open more doors for

me than more school. And I don’t mind being an Indian; somebody else

can be the chief. I’m very well rewarded for my experience and I don’t

feel slighted in any way."

The NIH was a unique and fondly remembered scientific environment.

"We had 15,000 people on a 400-acre campus with our own phonebook

and zip code," she says. "I miss that closeness and size,

and that’s the reason I now travel a little bit more. I don’t get

the same kind of immediate feedback I did at NIH, and it’s important

to have." Bisher returned to New Jersey when her mother —

who lived in the area and had been a professional nanny — offered

to watch Bisher’s newborn son. Sending out 50 resumes during the 1991

recession, Bisher got one interview — with NEC.

Now in a group with one supervisor and a postdoctoral

member, she collaborates with several other NEC Research teams.


I’m a biologist working in materials, I offer a different


she says. "My boss used to tease me that a materials scientist

makes a sample with a hammer. A biologist prepares samples very


and I have tried to use some biological techniques in preparing my

samples at NEC. As a biologist in a computer science company, it is

sometimes difficult suggesting a point of view that others aren’t

familiar with, but that’s okay. It keeps me on my toes."

Incorporating biology into physics brought Bisher special recognition

in 1996. "I attended a microscopy meeting where I presented some

of my work in the form of a poster. All the posters were entered into

competition and mine won for `Best Biological Poster.’ I remember

overhearing grumbling from some biological science researchers about

`how could a computer science company win in biology?’"

Adaptability has stood her in good stead as a parent. Now divorced,

she lives with her son Philip next door to her mother on a 250-year

old farm set on four acres in Flemington. With her mother continuing

to care for Philip, who is now 7, after school, Bisher finds living

on a family compound and caring for the grounds on the weekends very


"I had my son at the Harmony School across the street from where

I work, and he’d ride in with me," she says. "We’d have that

hour commute together and an hour home. It made for a long day, but

he got used to it." Her son, Bisher says, "is sure I’m a


scientist," and is very proud of what she does.

Though the days when she — as the daughter of an airline pilot

— could hop on a plane to scuba-dive in Hawaii might be over,

the 42-year-old remains as adventurous as the working mother of a

grade-schooler can be. The fact that she is very outgoing often


the stereotypes of scientists she runs into. "We’re not all wonks

with pocket protectors," she says. "Sometimes I think people

are afraid of scientists because they don’t quite know what to think

of us. That’s partly because science is now so specialized, but it’s

hard when you explain what you do and you lose people after four


Or you say you’re a scientist and their one comment is how they hated

science in high school. It’s really difficult sometimes to explain

to people the world you’re in."

That she is a woman scientist makes no difference in how laypeople

react or how she is perceived by her colleagues. "In certain


fields, like the biological sciences, women don’t seem to be a


she says. "But physics and computer science are still dominated

by men — and I’ve let that work for me. I’ve been very aggressive

in proving myself to be as good as anyone else.

"The competition is there, but not because you’re a man or a


The scientific community is very fair, and as a group of people, we

treat each other as equals with a great deal of respect."

For the rest of this article go to


Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments