I first met Christina in 2001 when I interviewed her for a position in the Endocrinology Reproductive Physiology Program. Typically for Christina, she was impeccably dressed and looked like a summers day. She was excited and clearly very smart and pretty soon she was working in my lab. This was an exciting time, I was newly promoted as an Associate professor and had some excellent graduate students, with who she fitted right in. Although most of them worked on aspects of vascular endothelial function, my early background was with adrenal steroid biosynthesis and particularly P450c17. My discussions with Christina lead to a project on that area and in the first year we began working with David Abbott and Wendy Saltzman (Madison) and Al Conley (UC Davis) on molecular characterization of the adrenal zonation and C19 steroid production from the innermost zone of the adrenal cortex in new world primates. Christina presented her data at her first annual meeting of the Society Gynecologic Investigation and was chosen for an Oral presentation at the Endocrine Society in San Francisco. She gave a flawless presentation and before I could say much of anything afterwards a longstanding expert in the adrenal field rushed over and told her it was the very best presentation he had ever seen by a postdoc! She was delighted by that and I knew right then we had a winner on our hands. Christina extended her studies into male vs female adrenal function and pretty soon she was able to show the differences in function related to induction of cyt b5 in different physiologic states, so supporting DHEA synthesis. But she did not stop there, and cloned the marmoset and rhesus P450c17 cDNA in order to compare and functionally express the proteins in these species. Working with colleagues in the laboratory of my long term friend Al Conley at UC Davis, Christina compared the function of microsomal preparations or expressed proteins. She identified important differences and was able to demonstrate in a number of ways that while marmoset P450c17 has relatively low lyase activity, the most effective way to raise it was by addition of cytb5. This linked full circle the observation of altered cytb5 expression in vivo and its higher level in females and how this changes further with social status in particular probably explains why female marmosets make more C19 steroids than males. During that time Christina attended every two years the biennial Adrenal Conference, an international group of the very best investigators. She continued to show tremendous enthusiasm and flair at these meetings and she was fully accepted by these leaders in her chosen field. I recall on many occasions seeing her fully engaged in long discussions and enjoying every minute of it.
So that is the science but of course there is a lot more to Christina than that. During the time in ERP, Christina, true to her nature, got involved. Christina was working part time with the UW Badgers, selling programs etc. She was also involved in several committees on the ERP program and in 2004 she chaired the committee organizing the annual symposium, which was a huge success. I always was impressed that each year at Halloween she would come to work in full fancy dress and just continue without even blinking. It’s a strange experience to walk into the lab and find a witch pipetting solutions into PCR tubes. I guess it was appropriate, if you consider the tubes to be her cauldron, and it certainly was not out of character for Christina. Another clear recollection is that when Christina took her many trips to meetings, she always had a suitcase about the size of a small house!
In addition to many trips to her sister’s basketball games and her mother with whom she was obviously very close, we were then surprised with an engagement and it truly impressed me how she went ahead with a wedding while keeping everything else and her work under control. Clearly these were good times for her. I certainly recall her wedding as a very special day. One thing that I will always recall when I think about her is what she said when we had to leave the reception. My daughter had her first sleepover invitation and we told Christina we had to leave to be able to take her there. Christina turned to my daughter and said ‘that’s a very important day in a young girls life. I remember my first sleep over and you must not miss it’
The time after her wedding was mainly spent finishing up her work and we started to discuss how to do that. I asked what was next and she said “ Medical School”. Applications flew around and we prepared many references and pretty soon she was close to being finished at the bench. But she had a heavy schedule for the summer and had to do officer training in the air force, as well as relocate to Penn. This left her with a thesis drafted but nowhere near complete. I told Christina the choice was hers but to write up away from the lab was very hard indeed. Nonetheless I also told her if anyone could do it, she could. She went ahead and did the officers training and started Medical School that fall at Penn State. I stayed in touch and she slowly got acclimated to the Medical School Curriculum and start back on the thesis. The following summer she hit the final phase of her thesis preparation hard. Chapters flew back and forth by email, and she submitted her thesis to her committee. At Christmas 2007 she came back to Madison to defend and everyone without exception was truly impressed with the quality of her work and outstanding publications record. I always tell my students, when you submit your thesis, you want it to be the best it can be, because what you left out at submission, you will end up getting as revisions. I also tell them that if you have got it right the thesis exam will not so much be a teacher- student relationship but will be more a meeting of the minds of equals. Christina just blew the committee away and clearly was experiencing a meeting of minds. The following day Christina made a few changes to the thesis and we chatted about what she had found life to be like at Penn, and what her plans were. She said she was really enjoying it and was doing what she loved. For the future she was definitely leaning to women’s reproductive health, an area she would have excelled in not just because for her scientific knowledge but also her personality. I last saw her as she took the final printed copy from the ERP office and went to deliver them to the Graduate School. That was Dec 21 st 2007. I know from there she was planning to celebrate with her husband and family. She had actually joked her family was teasing her about becoming a “Dr Dr”.
As fate would have it that was the last time I saw her. It was a very happy day for her as it was for me. Being an advisor and mentoring young talent is very much like parenting and I was proud to see her spreading her wings. I had hopes our paths would cross again and I had joked with her that if she became a Chair of OBGyn I would like a job in her department! About six weeks later I heard the terrible news of her loss from a colleague at Penn, Jan McAllistair, who knew me from previous post doc years in Dallas Texas and who had talked with Christina about a possible position in her lab. When I heard the news I was deeply shaken. How could this happen? She was so full of life it just does not seem possible. She was the apprentice that had become my equal and would go much further. Every time I tried to share the news with others I could not hold back the tears. Her former colleagues and friends from Madison, as well as the many faculty in the program who knew and worked with her were shocked. Colleagues from all around the world who met and discussed her work in detail at the Adrenal conferences were equally shaken. How do you get over it? Well, in a way you don’t but then I realized that while we are all saddened by her loss, I also believe she would not want us to destroy ourselves with our grief. So we may cry and grieve, but we must also remember to reflect on a life so well lived. Tolkein said that “not all tears are an evil”, and I will not mistake my tears for failure. In a way they are a testament to all that she became during the happiest of times.
I have several people to thank for having welcomed her so openly during her time at Madison. That includes the fellow students Jackie, Shannon and Jeremy, the ERP students who knew her, her thesis committee, Jo and Ann at UC Davis, and especially David Abbott, Al Conley, Colin Jefcoate, Alastair Brownie, Bill Rainey, Ian Mason and Walter Miller for both accepting her openly into the adrenal community and the many discussions with her about P450c17, which I know she enjoyed. Finally I want to thank her family and husband Zach for sharing her with us these past years. Christina was a remarkable woman and a credit to all of you. She was a credit to the ERP program, and among the very best of our T32 Trainees. From what I have learned in the past week, I can see she was also held in equally high regard at Penn State where she had equally “got involved” at many levels. It will never make sense to me why this happened but one thing is sure – Christina was a remarkable talent, an example of what we hope for in any training program, and a credit to her family and friends. We were lucky to have known her and she has touched each and every one of us deeply. That surely is a life well lived.
Ian M Bird PhD,
Professor Dept OBGyn
Director Endocrinology & Reproductive Physiology Program, UW Madison.
February 12, 2008