November/December 2020Vol. XXXIII No. 2
In Memoriam

Angelika Amon

Tyler E. Jacks

The following is a resolution presented at the November 18, 2020 Institute Faculty Meeting.

It is with deep sadness that we record today a memorial resolution marking the passing of Professor Angelika Amon, our valued colleague, a groundbreaking researcher, an inspiring mentor, and a friend. Angelika passed away on October 29, 2020 at the age of 53, following a two-and-a-half-year battle with ovarian cancer. Described by many as a force of nature and a scientist’s scientist, Angelika brought unmatched passion and integrity to everything she did. In addition to her many achievements in biomedical research, Angelika was a gifted and dedicated teacher and a beloved mentor. She was also an outspoken advocate for equality and justice. Although her life was too short, Angelika’s legacy will last long into the future.

Angelika Amon. Photo: Constance Brukin, courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives
Photo by: Constance Brukin, courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives

Angelika Amon made profound contributions to our understanding of the fundamental biology of the cell, deciphering the regulatory networks that govern cell growth and division in yeast, mice, and human cells, and shedding light on age-old questions at the heart of the cell cycle and the causes and consequences of chromosome mis-segregation. Her studies determined that carrying even a single extra chromosome significantly impacts the physiology of the cell, disrupting important processes such as protein folding and cellular homeostasis. She likewise showed that the presence of an extra chromosome sets off a cascade of negative effects within cells that may underlie some of the health problems associated specifically with Down syndrome. Still other work from the Amon lab has shed light on the relationship between how cells grow, divide, and age. Among other insights, this work has revealed that once cells reach a certain large size, they lose the ability to proliferate and are unable to reenter the cell cycle. This can result in senescence, an irreversible form of cell cycle arrest, and tissue aging. Her body of work illuminates important relationships between deep cell biological investigation and our understanding of human disease, and exemplifies the importance of discovery research in the broader scientific enterprise.

Born in 1967, Angelika grew up in Vienna, Austria. Playing outside all day with her three younger siblings, she developed an early love of biology and animals. She said that she could not remember a time when she was not interested in biology, initially wanting to become a zoologist. But in high school, she saw an old black-and-white film from the 1950s about chromosome segregation in the lily, and found the moment that the sister chromatids split apart breathtaking. She knew then that she wanted to study the inner-workings of the cell and decided to focus on genetics at the University of Vienna in Austria.

Angelika continued her doctoral work there under Professor Kim Nasmyth at the Institute for Molecular Pathology, earning her PhD in 1993 and making her first significant contributions to our understanding of cell cycle dynamics.

Her doctoral work led to major discoveries about how one stage of the cell cycle sets up for the next. Her appreciation for the elegant genetics in Drosophila being done in Ruth Lehmann’s lab at the Whitehead Institute led her to move to the United States in 1994 to pursue post-doctoral studies, where, unbeknownst to her at the time, she would make her permanent home. After Ruth’s departure to New York, Angelika was awarded a prestigious Whitehead Fellowship, and she began the work that would be instrumental in establishing her as one of the world’s leading geneticists: understanding how yeast cells progress through the cell cycle and partition their chromosomes.

In 1999, Angelika joined the faculty at MIT in the Department of Biology and the MIT Center for Cancer Research, the predecessor to the Koch Institute. A full professor since 2007, she also became the Kathleen and Curtis (1963) Marble Professor in Cancer Research, co-director of the Alana Down Syndrome Center at MIT, associate director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at MIT, a member of the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology at MIT, and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Her pathbreaking research has been recognized by many awards and honors, including the National Science Foundation Alan T. Waterman Award, the Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research, the National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology, the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine, and the Human Frontier Science Program Nakasone Award. Last year, she won the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences and the Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science, and was named to the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s annual list of Great Immigrants, Great Americans. She was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Angelika’s astonishing intellect, deep curiosity, and infectious humor made her a sought-after and well-beloved teacher, mentor, and colleague.

She was generous with her time and her sharp insights, developing a deep network of scientific collaboration and friendships. She took great delight in helping young scientists find their own “eureka moments,” and has mentored more than 80 postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates. Angelika was a fearless advocate for science and the rights of women and minorities and inspired others to fight as well. She was outspoken in her support of research and causes she believed strongly in. She was a role model for young female scientists and spent countless hours mentoring and guiding them in a male-dominated field. Every member of her lab was valued, and she took great care to listen and learn from all of them. Outside the lab, Angelika had a deep appreciation for music, politics, the New England Patriots, and all manner of scientific exploration.

Angelika is survived by her husband Johannes Weis, her two daughters Theresa and Clara Weis, and her three siblings and their families. Our thoughts go out to her family and loved ones, members of her lab, and, indeed, to all members of our community.

In honor of how much Angelika meant to us professionally and personally: Be it resolved that the Faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at its meeting of November 18, 2020, records its profound sense of loss on the death of our beloved friend and colleague Angelika Amon, and expresses its deepest sympathy to her family.