skip navigation nih record
Vol. LIX, No. 4
February 23, 2007

previous story

next story


NIDDK’s Nossal Mourned, Was a Pioneer in DNA Replication

Dr. Nancy Goldman Nossal

Dr. Nancy Goldman Nossal, chief of the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Biology (LMCB), NIDDK, died Sept. 28, 2006, of cancer at age 69. During her 40-year career at NIH, she distinguished herself as a scientist, mentor and role model.

“Nancy was a dedicated scientist and a caring colleague whose courage was an inspiration to all of us,” said Dr. Griffin Rodgers, acting director of NIDDK.

Nossal was an internationally recognized scientist and leader in the study of DNA replication. For almost 40 years, she investigated the proteins and enzymatic reactions required for DNA replication in the T4 bacteriophage system in E. coli. T4 phage, a virus that infects and replicates within bacteria, provided a simple and straightforward model in which to study DNA replication. Early in her career, Nossal contributed to the identification and characterization of the T4 phage proteins needed for DNA synthesis in vitro. Later studies revealed the functions of the T4 phage proteins at a molecular level and the similarity of the T4 phage system to more complex cell systems, contributing to the understanding of DNA replication in all organisms.

“Nancy was an outstanding and innovative scientist who made seminal discoveries on the mechanism of action of DNA polymerases and other DNA-active enzymes,” said Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research.

One of her most valuable contributions to the field resulted from collaboration with Dr. Jack Griffith at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Using electron microscopy, they proved the existence of a trombone loop at a moving fork in the T4 replication system, confirming the “trombone model” first proposed by Dr. Bruce Alberts nearly 30 years earlier. The findings were presented in a paper published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry with the image of the trombone loop appearing on the journal’s cover.

“Nancy was a revered scientific colleague and a friend,” said Alberts at the University of California, San Francisco. “She and I worked on the same model DNA replication system for 30 years, and she was a major contributor to the working out of the details of this marvelous protein machine that has proved to be a model for all other replication systems.”

Nossal joined NIH in 1964 as a postdoctoral fellow in NIDDK’s Laboratory of Biochemistry and Metabolism (LBM). After a year studying nucleic acids, she switched her focus to DNA replication and spent another year in LBM.

“There weren’t many communities at the NIH in the 1960s where women scientists were present and encouraged,” said Nossal’s husband of 47 years, Dr. Ralph Nossal, head of the Laboratory of Integrative and Medical Biophysics, NICHD. “So I think a great deal of credit should be given to that community of scientists at the NIDDK.”

After her postdoctoral fellowship, Nossal continued her work on DNA replication as an independent investigator in NIDDK’s Laboratory of Biochemical Pharmacology (LBP). The chief, Dr. Herb Tabor, together with his wife and colleague, Celia, created a supportive and encouraging environment for a host of eager, young scientists, including Nossal and her close friend, Dr. Anthony Furano.

“Herb Tabor was very important to Nancy,” said Furano, chief of the genomic structure and function section in LMCB. “He had a consistency about him and was fascinated by the science. Nancy incorporated that into her approach to her science.”

Nossal had a reputation for being a serious and conscientious scientist. “She was a hard worker and did her own laboratory work and was well respected in the community,” said Tabor, chief of the pharmacology section in the Laboratory of Biochemistry and Genetics at NIDDK. “I always trusted her judgment, fairness and knowledge of the field.”

Colleagues benefited from Nossal’s passion for science and scientific integrity. “The one thing about Nancy is that she was always eager to share reagents, ideas and what she was thinking,” said Dr. Jerard Hurwitz of the Sloan-Kettering Institute. “She was always giving of her time and was such an open person.”

From 1966 through 1983, Nossal worked as a research chemist in the section on pharmacology in LBP. In 1983, she was named chief of the lab’s section on nucleic acid biochemistry, a position she held until 1992, when she was named chief of LMCB. Nossal was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005.

Nossal passed on her love for and careful approach to science to the students and fellows in her laboratory. “Nancy was very personable and very interested, but the way she really helped younger people was by showing them how to do things. She showed them how to think about science,” said Dr. Charlie Jones, a staff scientist who served in Nossal’s laboratory from June 1996 until her death. “All the people who came into her lab came out better scientists, better problem solvers and more confident in what they were doing.”

Nossal was also able to balance work and family, serving as a role model for young scientists, especially women. “She was certainly someone who showed by example that you could have children and you could have a family and you could have science,” said Dr. Deborah Hinton, chief of the gene expression and regulation section in LMCB and one of Nossal’s early postdoctoral fellows. “I worked with Nancy for 24 years, and I told her I owe my career to her. She was the person who supported me and encouraged me to become a principal investigator.”

Nossal enjoyed walking outdoors along the C&O Canal, baking cakes and cookies for family and friends and occasionally going to a concert or a play. But her passions were work and family, according to her husband. “She was a very loving person,” said Nossal’s son, Michael. “She taught me that everyone can make a contribution.”

Nossal is survived by her husband; their three children: Susan Nossal of Madison, Wis., Steven Nossal of Reston, Va., and Michael Nossal of Washington, D.C.; her mother, Dorothy Goldman of Chicago; a sister; and a brother.

NCI Receives 2006 Vision Award
Holding NCI's Vision Award are Dr. Linda Pickle and Dr. David Stinchcomb.

Holding NCI's Vision Award are Dr. Linda Pickle and Dr. David Stinchcomb.

The National Cancer Institute has won the 2006 Vision Award for its ongoing Geographical Information System (GIS) Database Development program, innovative spatial data analysis, development of geovisualization tools and communication of georeferenced statistics.

The award is presented by the Environmental Systems Research Institute to the organization that has gone beyond the traditional use of GIS within a health or human services organization. It was accepted on behalf of NCI by Dr. David Stinchcomb, a geographer in the Surveillance Research Program. ESRI designs and develops GIS technology.

“We are deeply honored to receive this award,” said Dr. Linda Pickle, senior mathematical statisti-cian and coordinator of geographic research in the Statistical Research and Applications Branch.

"NCI has long recognized that cancer rates vary geographically, ever since the first county-level cancer atlas was published in 1975,” she explained. “As tools for spatial analyses have become more widely available, such as for cluster identification and spatial statistical modeling, we have incorporated them into our standard analytic practices. Place is important for cancer studies because of geographic differences in environmental exposures, cultural attitudes toward risky behaviors and preventive health care, local public health policies, availability of services by socioeconomic level and the means by which residents obtain health information. Because of this, GIS is now a primary tool for NCI staff.”

CSR Employees Receive the Center’s Highest Awards for Innovation
CSR director Dr. Toni Scarpa (c) congratulates Explorer Award winners Dr. Everett Sinnett (l) and Dr. George Chacko.

CSR director Dr. Toni Scarpa (c) congratulates Explorer Award winners Dr. Everett Sinnett (l) and Dr. George Chacko.

Drs. George Chacko and Everett Sinnett received “Explorer Awards” for their innovative efforts at the Center for Scientific Review. “Their efforts will be felt throughout NIH,” says CSR director Dr. Toni Scarpa, “because they will improve the quality of NIH peer reviews and reduce costs and staff burdens.” Chacko and Sinnett share a $10,000 prize, which was awarded recently.

Chacko was cited for his “exceptional leadership and commitment to the future of NIH peer review in developing and implementing the asynchronous electronic discussion platform.” This online discussion platform allows reviewers to assess applications without having to travel or be constrained by time zones. A total of 38 study sections have used this new platform, which increases the pool of available reviewers and eliminates travel expenses. CSR plans to use this and other electronic platforms for about 10 percent of its reviews in 2007.

Sinnett was cited for his “commitment to improving efficiency and reducing staff burdens.” He developed a way to use existing computer systems and data to streamline the reporting of reviewer reimbursement information. Recent reimbursement changes meant that staff had to mark up and sift though multi-page documentation to process reimbursements. Sinnett’s solution has simplified and (largely) automated the task for everyone. The NIH reimbursement process now is significantly faster and carries a reduced risk of error.

“CSR faces many challenges,” says Scarpa, “so it’s encouraging to see, and important to recognize, innovation coming from our talented employees.”

back to top of page