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Luck plays a role in the Kimble lab, as it does in any science lab, but more important is a disciplined focus on the big picture. “When I got here, I was asking dumb questions,” says Ph.D. student Aaron Kershner. “She helped me zero in, focus my thoughts and my energy, cut through to the really important stuff.”
Kimble gained an appreciation for big questions at the Medical Research Council (MRC) in Cambridge, England, where Nobelists Sydney Brenner, John Sulston, and Bob Horvitz had embarked on research that would transform the transparent C. elegans into one of biology's most fruitful model organisms. The MRC was a hotbed of scientific creativity, where young scientists were encouraged to pursue the big questions—even if nobody else thought they were important.
Judith Kimble showed her willingness to swim against the tide early in life. The daughter of a Duke University psychology professor and a “very smart mother,” she professed atheism—at age four—when neighbors asked about her church. Hers was not the ideal approach for winning friends in the mid-century South, and as a teenager she recalls “doing a lot of reading and listening to Bob Dylan.”
When her father took a sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley, she discovered “a world I could communicate with,” so she enrolled at Berkeley as an undergraduate. Her original ambition to become a veterinarian had shifted to human medicine—until the death of a close friend revealed that doctors were often helpless to treat diseases they did not understand. “When I saw how primitive medicine could be,” she recalls, “it transformed my ideas about a career.”
Kimble had been accepted at medical school but changed her plans amid the stirrings of a lifelong fascination with embryonic development. She approached a University of Copenhagen professor about studying human embryonic development in his lab. Though he was agreeable, Denmark's union laws prohibited her employment as a technician—but they did permit her to join the faculty. “So instead of attending medical school in the United States,” she says, “I became a histology lecturer at medical school in Denmark,” teaching students about the structure and function of human organs. “Thankfully, people were forgiving of my pidgin Danish,” she adds with a smile.
The lab work in Copenhagen fueled her curiosity. “The development of the mammalian embryo was the most astonishing phenomenon I had ever encountered,” Kimble says, but descriptive studies failed to explain the changes she saw. This was during the early 1970s, when molecular biologists were starting to unravel how genes are controlled, and “that was the level I wanted to understand an embryo at.”
Photo: Kevin Miyazaki