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Distinguished Alumni reprograms STEM career, stem cells

August 15, 2009

Arizona State University alumna Barbara Knowles’ long list of professional accomplishments can be traced back to a pivotal night course in genetics in 1962.

“Genetics is a fascinating subject, always changing,” says Knowles. “While I was working in Glendale and living in Tempe with my graduate student husband, I took a graduate night course at ASU taught by Charles Woolf. He was a very good teacher. After a second night course with him, he asked whether I would like to go to graduate school and work with him on an interesting problem on the edge of development and cancer. I accepted and this gave me an excellent start on a life in science.”

Knowles’ degrees in Zoology with Woolf, now professor emeritus from the School of Life Sciences in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, launched a career that has taken her from the University of California at Berkeley during the 1967 “Summer of Love” to Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University in Singapore in 2008 – with stops along the way at the Wistar Institute and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the Jackson Laboratory, the center of mammalian genetics research, and the University of Maine.

Knowles is now a senior principal investigator with the Institute of Medical Biology, A*STAR, Singapore, and senior mentor with the A*STAR Graduate Academy. She continues as an adjunct faculty member with the Jackson Laboratory, in addition to serving as an outside member with the Max Planck Society in Germany. Knowles also serves on the editorial boards of the journals Hybridoma and Stem Cells and the advisory boards at RIKEN, Japan, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Knowles will add one more title to her impressive achievements when she returns to ASU as the first recipient of the School of Life Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award.

Former mentor Woolf says, “There is no one more deserving of this award than Barbara.” 

Fond remembrances of Knowles ASU graduate school days include rattlesnake hunting, running trap lines for coyotes, field trips to the Gulf of Mexico and memories of “weeks of counting Drosophila eggs every 12 hours.” It was this latter devotion to her research that ultimately elevated Knowles to a chairmanship at the Wistar Institute and research directorships at the Jackson Laboratory and the Institute for Molecular Biophysics, a consortium between the University of Maine, the Jackson Laboratory and the Kirchhof Institute of Physics at Heidelberg University, Germany. Along the way, Knowles supported her research with 40 years of unbroken National Institutes of Health funding; pioneered stem cell research and developed liver, cancer cell and mouse lines and markers; mentored 42 pre- and postdoctoral fellows; and authored more than 200 publications.

An impressive journey for the first member of her family to attend college.

Knowles accepts her award and speaks about “Reprogramming: from stem cells to STEM careers,” the promise of stem cell technology and her own growth and remarkable career in the realm of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education at 2 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 4 in the Life Science Building E-wing, room 104.

For more information: or, 480-727-8934.