A 30-Year Legacy: Wallace Steps Down as Chair of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics

February 23, 2018 by Jennifer Nachbur

Breaking new ground has been a common theme in the career of Susan Wallace, Ph.D., a preeminent scholar, the University of Vermont’s founding chair of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, and a University Distinguished Professor. The contributions resulting from her vision, collaborations and scholarship have provided a great legacy for not only the UVM community, but scientists and patients across the globe. 

The College of Medicine and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences recently honored Wallace at a February 13 reception.

After joining the faculty in 1988 as one of only a few scholars at UVM who have chaired a department across two colleges – the Larner College of Medicine and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – Wallace quickly got to work overseeing a building project that literally led to a groundbreaking for her department’s new home, Stafford Hall, in 1992.

Her career has spanned both the genetic revolution, as well as a significant shift in women’s roles in scientific research. Though the word “genetics” was met with suspicion by some members of the public at the time of Wallace’s arrival at UVM, the work that she and her faculty have performed over the past 30 years has led to numerous discoveries that have translated to clinical work that has benefited patients. 

The course of her professional career began with a childhood passion for science that led to an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Marymount College, a master’s degree in bioradiology from University of California, Berkeley and a Ph.D. in biophysics from Cornell University, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in immunochemistry from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She secured her first faculty position at CCNY/Hunter College in New York City in 1976, while also raising three children in the suburbs. Fortunately, in 1988, she was recruited to UVM by the late Norman Alpert, Ph.D., then chair of physiology, and Bill Luginbuhl, M.D., then dean of the College of Medicine.

Wallace’s research has provided a much greater understanding of the mechanisms at play in the development of cancer and how radiation affects the genome. This work has attracted millions of dollars in research support – consistent National Institutes of Health funding since 1971, including two prestigious MERIT awards and a Program Project grant award to support translational research exploring a potential link between certain DNA repair protein variants in the human population and an increase the risk for some types of cancer. In addition, she has published more than 200 biomedical journal articles and trained many successful graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at UVM.

“Dr. Wallace’s career is truly exemplary, spanning both the genetic revolution and the entry of women into scientific research – a door that she opened through focused pursuit of her interests as a young scientist,” said UVM President Tom Sullivan in remarks that were read by John Burke, Ph.D., professor emeritus of microbiology and molecular genetics at the reception honoring Wallace. Sullivan also wrote that “Her international renown as a scholar and researcher – particularly in the fields of DNA, oxidation, and molecular repair – has brought great acclaim to UVM and has established UVM’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics as a premier learning ground for aspiring scientists, researchers, scholars, and physicians.” 

Among Wallace's many leadership roles are service as the director of the Department of Energy Vermont EPSCoR Program, director of the Vermont Cancer Center (now UVM Cancer Center) Genome Stability and Expression Program, director of the Cancer Biology Training Program, and associate director for basic and translational science in the Cancer Center. 

Her many honors – the most recent of which was election as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science – include the John B. Little Award for Outstanding Contributions to Molecular Radiobiology from the Harvard School of Public Health; the Environmental Mutagen Society Award for Fundamental Studies on Repair of DNA Damage Caused by Environmental Agents, and for her Exemplary Leadership in Science, University Distinguished Professor, and Fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

“Her work is marked by the sense of collaboration she has built in the hallways of Stafford and throughout UVM, with dozens of faculty members, postdocs, and the graduate, medical, and undergraduate students with whom she has shared her insights and encouragement,” said Larner College of Medicine Dean Rick Morin, M.D., at the reception honoring Wallace. “She has, through insight, hard work, and ceaseless mentoring . . . helped form the careers of other scientists and physicians across the nation.” 

Wallace will step down from her role as chair at the end of February.