Faculty and Teaching Staff Stories

Leona Samson

Leona Samson photoProfessor of Biological Engineering
Professor of Biology

By the time I went to high school I had lived in six different towns and attended several different schools. The transitions usually happened mid-semester. It’s not particularly surprising that, like my older brother and many of our friends, I dropped out of high school at age 15.

This didn’t alarm anyone in my family. I grew up in the industrial North of England, near Manchester, a region that used to be dotted with cotton mills and coal mines. My grandfather started working half-days in the coal mine at age 12 (spending the other half of the day at school); he went to work full-time at age 14. My grandmother started in the cotton mills at age 14. My mother fought against being sent to work in the mills, but she too left school at age 14 to become an office clerk. My father actually finished high school. Like the rest of my family he didn’t go to university; he joined the Canadian Navy instead and was sent to England.

Stationed just outside Manchester, he met my mother. They married when she was 19, moved to Canada, and had two children (one of whom was me), but then my mother moved us right back to her familiar working class neighborhood to live with my grandparents (without my father). When I was 11 (a short time after my father re-entered our lives by coming back to England from Canada) we moved to the industrial region of Scotland, near Glasgow.

When I dropped out of school I somehow landed a job as a (very) junior laboratory technician at a pharmaceutical company in a nearby industrial park, and started off washing glassware and feeding the mice, rats, and rabbits. The job required that I study some biology, which I did by attending the David Dale College in Glasgow one day and one night per week. At the end of two years I received an Ordinary National Certificate (ONC), which was equivalent to having taken Biology in high school. During those two years I gradually moved from washing glassware and feeding animals to carrying out some simple biochemical assays and being allowed to assist some of the university-educated people in the lab. This was my first-ever contact with people who had university degrees! I found everything very exciting: even washing flasks and test tubes seemed amazing and I just fell in love with the laboratory environment. In addition, I discovered that biology was surprisingly interesting! I decided that I wanted to work in a lab forever.

Two of the PhD-level people I worked with during my second year as a lab technician went out of their way to help me study for the ONC exams, and one day one of them suggested that I should apply to university. I was stunned. How could a high school drop-out go to university? Indeed, how could anyone from my background even dream of being a university student? It turned out that some universities in the UK have a “mature student” program that encourages people who have been out of high school for two or more years to apply; the entrance requirements for such applicants are grossly relaxed in order to give them a chance to get into the system. Even though I was only 17, I had been out of high school for nearly two years. One of my bosses wrote off for the application forms, then helped me fill them out and mail them off. I applied to five universities and was accepted to only one, Aberdeen University in the north of Scotland. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. And my life changed forever.

That first year was tough! I didn’t know any others who had come in as part of the “mature student” program, and I was two years behind all my classmates in everything except biology. But I was way ahead in maturity, having worked “in the real world,” knowing my way around a lab, and having firmly decided I wanted to study biochemistry. It seemed very strange to me that most of my classmates didn’t quite know what major or career they wanted. I wanted to do cancer research and that was that.

If I didn’t pass all of my first-year classes I would have to leave with no opportunity to return. It was an incredibly close call: I just scraped through to the second year. As the next three years unfurled I gradually caught up with my classmates, and by the time Finals came around I was actually doing quite well. In the British system, at least back then (1974), one’s final grade (equivalent to one’s GPA) is almost entirely determined by performance in the exams given over a two-week period at the end of four years of study. This may seem unfair, but in my case it was a gift from heaven. My final grade (along with everyone else’s) was posted on a public notice board a few days after the last exam; it was a much better grade than I had hoped for.

That night, it dawned on me that it was good enough to get into a PhD program.

Most of my friends and all of my family thought this was a bad idea. My favorite comment came from my Mother: “Well, don’t you think that’s going a bit too far”! Their main reasoning was that I had married between junior and senior years and that my being “Dr.” and my husband being “Mr.” was ill-advised. Luckily he took the neutral approach of “You do what you want to do.” So I did.

I interviewed with two labs at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London for a position as a PhD student. The first interview went badly after my wedding ring was spotted. “How can you do a PhD if you need to have your husband’s dinner on the table every night?” I was so shocked by this question I couldn’t speak. I went into the second interview ready to fight, armed with a stern response to this question, but it didn’t come up. Little did I know that I was interviewing with a world-famous biologist, who took a liking to my fighting spirit (his words). Had I know how famous John Cairns was, and what an incredible opportunity it would be to be his student, I probably would have flunked the interview.

In 1978 I decided to postdoc in the US (UCSF)—just for a couple of years. I have been in the US ever since. During another postdoc at UC Berkeley, someone said the magic words “when you have your own lab.” My own lab? This idea was as much of a surprise to me as when, at 17, my boss suggested that I should apply to university. It had honestly never crossed my mind that I would ever run my own lab. In retrospect, this is an appalling, but accurate, statement. In 1980 I was asked to apply for a faculty position at MIT, but I really was not mentally prepared for taking such a bold step; indeed, the search committee came to exactly the same conclusion! Three years later I was asked to apply for a position at the Harvard School of Public Health, and by this time I was ready for the challenge. I spent 18 happy years on the HSPH faculty, during which time I was again approached by MIT to apply for a faculty position, this time as Full Professor. Moving to MIT in 2001 was the best thing to happen in my career. Given the story of my early life, you can perhaps understand why I pinch myself every day and wonder whether any of this is actually real.