The Sound of Science

Chromosomes, conservation & chocolate: The life of Liane Russell

The Sound of Science: Liane Russell

Learn about the remarkable life and legacy of the late Liane B. Russell, one of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's most renowned scientists. She was a pioneer in genetics, a passionate conservationist and an unabashed chocolate lover. In this episode, you'll hear from those who knew her best — and a few whom she inspired during the course of her career.




JERRY TUSKAN: Her passion for science trickled over into passions for other things. And she poured herself equally deep into those.

MELISSA CREGGER: She was a super famous molecular geneticist, but she also was this super passionate conservationist.

DABNEY JOHNSON: She was quite a gal. I’ve never met anyone else like her.




JENNY: Hello everyone and welcome to the Sound of Science, the podcast highlighting the voices behind the breakthroughs at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

MORGAN: We’re your hosts, Morgan McCorkle and Jenny Woodbery

JENNY: We’re doing things a little differently this episode. We’re looking at the career and legacy of the late Liane B. Russell, one of ORNL’s most renowned scientists.

MORGAN: A genetic pioneer. A conservationist. A mother. Liane Russell was a force.

JENNY: And if you’re not familiar with her name, chances are you’ll be familiar with the scientific discoveries her work produced.

MORGAN:  To tell her story, we’ve talked to a few of those who knew her best and a few that she inspired.

JENNY: And thanks to an interview from the Atomic Heritage Foundation archives, you’ll also hear some of it in her own words.




MORGAN: Liane, also known as Lee, was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1923. She was one of three children. Her father was a chemical engineer and her mother was a homemaker.

JENNY: In 1938, she and her family fled from Austria shortly after Nazi Germany annexed the country.

LIANE RUSSELL: We’re very lucky that we were able to leave very early. We left just five weeks afterwards. We left in somewhere early in the spring and went via Prague and Brussels to London.

MORGAN:  Her family stayed in London for three years before making their way to the United States in 1941.

RUSSELL: We left before America got in the war, because when we came here, there was no war here. It was very strange, coming from all the bombings and everything. But in December of the same year that we arrived, of course, Pearl Harbor happened. It was a short time between wars, sort of.

JENNY: Once in the U.S., Liane attended Hunter College in New York. Although her dad was a chemical engineer, Liane wasn’t planning on becoming a scientist herself.

MORGAN: She actually wanted to be a writer during her first year of school but eventually decided to pursue a career as a medical doctor.

JENNY: Her path changed once again while attending a summer research program at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1943.

RUSSELL: I really got bitten by a research bug. I was looking down a microscope and I saw a mouse’s fertilized egg, and I thought, “My God, less than three weeks from now, this is going to be a mouse, a complete mouse!” That really was an amazing thought, and that sort of got me turned on.

MORGAN: The summer program not only introduced her to her career-long passion, but also to her future husband, geneticist Bill Russell.

JENNY: Liane and Bill became an inseparable team that would be world-renowned for their numerous discoveries in genetics.




MORGAN: After the Manhattan Project, ORNL – then known as Clinton Laboratories – ramped up its work to understand the health effects of radiation.

JENNY: Research on radiation had been done with drosophila, also known as fruit flies, but fruit flies aren’t a good genetic match for humans.

MORGAN: And the research suggested radiation had little effect on the flies.

DABNEY JOHNSON: I guess an early idea was, you know, we know enough. We know what it does to drosophila, that's all we need to know. And other people like Bill and Lee said, you know no, that's not all we need to know, just drosophila eggs are not like human eggs and sperm.  The whole developmental process is different and we actually know nothing about what happens to human germ cells.

JENNY: That’s Dabney Johnson. She was a colleague and close friend of Liane’s.

MORGAN: Germ cells are the sex cells, or eggs and sperm, that allow genes to be passed on from generation to generation.

JENNY: Mice, unlike fruit flies, are genetically similar to humans, so studying their germ cell development would give more insight into the effects of radiation.

MORGAN:  So, the Russells came to Oak Ridge in 1947 and established a large-scale mammalian genetics program known as the “Mouse House.”

JOHNSON: It was a health experiment and the whole system was set up to be able to do that in huge numbers so that you would have statistically significant sample sizes for all of that. So, for every million mice that you grew from parents who had been exposed to radiation or chemicals, you had to have a million mice whose parents had not been exposed so that you had the control group. So, this was an enormous undertaking to, to get all the kinds of radiation in all kinds of doses that it could be done in, and then plus checking off a lot of chemicals. So, it was a huge experiment.

JENNY: Dabney was a student then colleague of Liane’s in the 1980s.

MORGAN: At its capacity, the Mouse House could hold 200,000 mice. We asked Dabney to paint a picture of what it was like to work there.

JOHNSON: So, you can imagine what it smelled like. And, you know, those of us who went in there, you get so your nose doesn't recognize that smell, but people would walk in the door like this, they would cover their mouths or you know, get a handkerchief and hold it over their nose. You know, it was noisy. There were cage washing machines going on, and people and the acoustics were terrible. Things were echoing all over the building.

MORGAN: Over the next six decades, Liane and Bill made a number of groundbreaking discoveries with their research produced from the Mouse House. A few in particular are almost common knowledge nowadays.

JENNY: Did you know her research on mouse embryos produced the universal prenatal guidelines for X-rays during pregnancy?

MORGAN: By studying the mouse embryos, she determined the critical periods in prenatal development.

JOHNSON: That's why we all wear lead aprons when we get X-rayed for anything now because it's very dangerous to very early embryos. So, she would do that in pregnant mice different times during the development. The gestation is three weeks for mice, nine months for people, and you can translate those two timelines to say that if it you know, if it's dangerous to mice at day three, then it's probably dangerous to human embryo at week six, something like that.

JENNY: Remember when you learned about X and Y chromosomes in biology class? Well Liane was the one who discovered that the Y chromosome notes maleness in mammals.

MORGAN: The Y chromosome had been discovered, but its role was unclear in mammals.

JOHNSON: Some of the work had been done in in way lower organisms. And then some work was done in drosophila fruit flies that was the major model animal at the time, and drosophila don't have Y chromosomes.  Their male determining things are scattered around on your other chromosomes. And so, what do mammals have? And so she did some very complicated experiments that eventually and you know, soon after that, we learned how to stain chromosomes and actually count them and sure enough, anything that had a Y chromosome was a male, a female who has one X chromosome is a female. And male that has two X chromosomes and a Y is a male. So, if you have a Y, you're male.

JENNY: The Russells’ work also helped set occupational limits for radiation exposure.




MORGAN: Liane retired from ORNL in the early 90s, but that wasn’t the end of her work at the lab. She remained very active and continued to do research.

JENNY: Dabney became the lead for the Mouse House research … and Liane’s boss.

JOHNSON: I mean, have you ever been in that situation where somebody who towers over you with their knowledge and their intellect is actually supposedly, you know, under your authority, it was very crazy. I can remember trying to do her performance appraisal, and I just thought this is completely ridiculous. But she stayed very much involved very interested still doing work, still publishing papers, still gathering data, going to meetings and talks.

MORGAN: Liane’s enthusiasm wasn’t limited to genetics research. She and her husband were also passionate conservationists.

ACE RUSSELL: It started in the mid-60s when, when some lands and, and, and waterways were being threatened here in East Tennessee, places that they loved, and I loved, you know, going with them around places here in Tennessee.

MORGAN: That’s Liane and Bill’s son, David “Ace” Russell.

JENNY: The couple was instrumental in founding the Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning non-profit organization, which helped establish the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and obtained a National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Obed River.

ACE RUSSELL: So, it kind of naturally grew out of, I think their devotion to science in general. You know, my mother started as more of a humanitarian type, who I think was pretty well cultured in a lot of ways. And she had originally intended to be a doctor and to help humanity that way. Then she met my father and he kind of convinced her I think that you know, pure research role would also be very helpful. But she, she always took that, you know, that basic idea of helping people, I think, into her science.




MORGAN: Liane passed away July 20, 2019, but her legacy lives on at ORNL.

JENNY: Research at the Mouse House ended in 2009, but the lab still does work in genetics – just not in mice.

MORGAN: Jerry Tuskan is the director of the Center for Bioenergy Innovation at Oak Ridge. He’s also a geneticist who primarily studies plants.

JERRY TUSKAN: So initially, it would seem there would be no connection between the work that Liane did in mouse genetics and what I've been doing in plant genetics. But at the DNA level, things are very similar and very common -- shared mechanisms for inheritance and how phenotypes or traits are passed on from parents to progeny.

JENNY: While there are parallels in their work, the tools they used couldn’t be more different.

MORGAN: In the late 90s into the early 2000s, Jerry was part of a team that sequenced the poplar genome using a computer program.

JENNY: And if you’re wondering what a genome is, it’s all of the hereditary information that is coded into an organism’s DNA.

TUSKAN: As Russell's career was ending, the whole evolution of DNA sequencing was evolving, was just coming on the scene. We do things today in a matter of 24 hours that would have taken weeks of time. They just didn't have the tools, the mass spectrometers, the DNA sequencers that we have now. Literally, you'll postdoc in my lab can order a kit isolate DNA and a couple of hours, drop the DNA into the kit, mail it out. And by the time he comes back, or she comes back, the next morning has the results. And it's just phenomenal. The speed at which we can do things today.

JENNY: In addition to all of those tools, Jerry has access to Summit, the world’s fastest supercomputer, to help him sequence genomes.

TUSKAN: So, if you think about poplar having 40,000 genes, and the pairwise, just the pairwise interactions, but genes operate in these protein complexes where there are four or five members of the protein complex. They all have to show up at the right time and the right tissue at the right moment, to have some function to cause some reaction. It's been impossible to map that or to understand that you can study one, you can study a half a dozen, but on a genome wide scale, up until about two years ago, it was impossible. So, we were able to use Summit to project in that gene-to-gene interactions called pleiotropy – to predict all pleiotropic interactions in the poplar tree, all of them and in humans. And so for the first time, instead of trying to chase a gene to a particular phenotype, we're able to stand back and say, okay, it takes these hundred genes all operating in concert, to lead to the point where you have the opportunity to express the phenotype. And so, the evolution of our computational capabilities is really, I think, gonna just launch us faster and further than we ever have gotten in the past.

MORGAN: Research results from Summit are enabling scientists to tackle a range of problems like developing better biofuels and bioproducts to fighting cancer and the opioid addiction crisis.




JENNY: Liane was a pioneer for women in science and that legacy continues with the fellowship named in her honor.

MORGAN: The Liane B. Russell Distinguished Early Career Fellowship was established in 2013 with the goal of expanding opportunities for early career researchers.

LIANE RUSSELL: It is, essentially, for young women getting their own independent research facilities. Because so many women who were just as educated as some of the men ended up working as a partner or technician—not a high-level technician—to somebody instead of doing their own research. This is one way of getting young women their independent facilities and opportunities. They’re not all biologists, they’re everything—they’re physicists, mathematicians.

JENNY: And even ecologists. Melissa Cregger, whose work focuses on plant microbe interactions, became a Russell fellow in 2015.

CREGGER: I got to meet her right after my fellowship started with a couple of the other fellows. And it was amazing because she was an older woman, but she was still so super sharp. So, my fellowship research was focused on understanding how the loss of hemlock trees in kind of mountain forested systems, how that affected carbon and nitrogen cycling. And so, she was really passionate about hemlock trees. So, she proceeded to tell me all about the hemlocks in her yard, and how she was spraying them with this insecticide to keep the adelgid at bay. And it was really important to her. She was very interested in the science I was doing, because she had already known kind of everything that was going on with the hemlock trees.

MORGAN: To date, there have been 10 Russell Fellows.

CREGGER: You know, it's hard for me to even fathom kind of what she went through on a daily basis. Even as a woman in science in 2020, I still often walk into rooms where I am the only female scientist in a meeting. And but I have a lot of advocates and supporters. And you know, there are other women scientists that I can turn to now. So, I can't even imagine what it was like for her to know that she was the only one. Like she was one of the only ones there, she probably didn't have the kind of support. So, the fact that she did everything that she did at Oak Ridge kind of paved the way for all of us to kind of continue on in her work and get to be scientists at a national laboratory.



JENNY: As we have heard, Liane was a woman of many talents, but we did learn that she had one weakness – chocolate.

ACE RUSSELL: She was scrupulous about labeling foods on the date of purchase long before that was mandated by any authorities and continued to do it afterwards. By the way, I bet she was scrupulous about that, except in the case of chocolate, which was, in her opinion, something that lasted forever, and it didn't matter how old the bar of chocolate was that you found in the cupboard. It was it was good. So, I guess she thought chocolate never expired.

MORGAN: This was a fact that was also well known among her colleagues.

DABNEY: She wanted fine chocolate, Swiss chocolate and all these imported chocolates, and I can remember one time in the old Mouse House there was a vending machine. And for some reason she was out of chocolate and it was four o'clock in the afternoon. So, there had to be chocolate and a couple of us caught her buying Ho-hos. I mean, they couldn't rot, you know, there's full of such horrible things. And so, she put her money in and she got in, she turned her in, she looked, and she knew she was caught. And we died laughing. And she just said, “I don't care if you know if you know I’m eating Ho-Hos.” She had to have her chocolate.




JENNY: From her love of chocolate and the natural world to her groundbreaking research in genetics, we hoped you enjoyed learning about the life and legacy of an amazing woman.

MORGAN: Thank you for listening to this episode of The Sound of Science.

JENNY: We hope you enjoyed this episode and are enjoying this series.

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JENNY: And we’d love to hear your feedback, so leave us a comment or review.

MORGAN: Until next time!