Caltech, Then and Again

Throughout her career, when Elizabeth Bertani (PhD ’57) wanted to pursue something, she went for it. As a result, she achieved a number of firsts.

When Bertani was a sophomore pre-medical student at the University of Michigan, she asked if she could get involved with basic research. In 1951, undergraduates simply did not work in laboratories. Eventually, Bertani was granted permission to work in a bacteriophage laboratory, where she studied viruses that infect bacteria. Her first job was to wash dishes, but she also was allowed to carry out a small research project. After observing her conduct the investigation, Bertani’s mentor broadened her responsibilities to include more research.

“The first time I worked on a research project, I had such a ball,” Bertani says. “And subsequently, my work was included in a paper.” So began her career in molecular biology.

Bertani first set foot on Caltech’s campus in 1954, the second woman admitted to a graduate program at Caltech. At that time, breakthrough technologies and new insights from the fields of chemistry and physics were beginning to revolutionize the study of bacteria and viruses. Bertani worked alongside Max Delbrück, who was one of the founders of  the field of molecular biology and in 1969 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the genetic makeup of viruses.

In 1957, having completed her thesis on lysogeny, a cycle of viral reproduction in bacteriophage, Bertani became the first woman to receive a PhD in biology at Caltech.

When in Sweden

Elizabeth Bertani’s husband, Giuseppe (Joe) Bertani, was a renowned microbial geneticist who had worked at various U.S. institutions, including Caltech and the University of Southern California. In 1960, he was recruited from USC to join one of the world’s most prestigious medical universities, the Karolinska Institutet. The couple spent the next chapter of their lives in Sweden, teaching and conducting research, and together they raised two children. Throughout that time, the Bertanis maintained their Caltech connections.

“We lived in Stockholm, so that of course meant whenever someone from Caltech won a Nobel Prize, we could celebrate with them.”
- Elizabeth Bertani

To date, 38 Caltech alumni and faculty have received 39 Nobel Prizes, with Caltech Professor Linus Pauling receiving two Nobel Prizes (chemistry and peace). During the Bertanis’ time in Sweden, the couple celebrated with faculty members Max Delbrück and Renato Dulbecco as well as with Howard Temin (PhD ’60), who had been a graduate student at Caltech in 1956, and Bob Holley, who spent a sabbatical year as a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech in 1955.

Returning to the Fold

After 21 years in Sweden, the Bertanis returned to Caltech. Joe Bertani worked at JPL until his retirement in 1991, and the couple’s elder son, Christofer, earned a BS from Caltech in 1990. Elizabeth Bertani conducted research with Judith Campbell, Caltech professor of chemistry and biology.

In 1992, Campbell saw an open position perfectly suited for Bertani: instructor for Bi180, Methods in Molecular Genetics. The course used a series of prescribed projects to expose students to basic wet lab techniques. Once hired as the Bi180 instructor, Bertani transformed the course so that her students would discover the thrill of basic research that she had experienced four decades earlier: her curriculum offered undergraduates the freedom to design their own experiments.

With each quarter, demand for Bi180 grew and enrollment was eventually capped.  “It was such an open field for molecular biology and genetic research in the early 1990s,” Bertani says, “that out of an introductory wet lab course we were publishing papers!” In 1998, Elizabeth Bertani received Caltech’s Lawrence L. and Audrey W. Ferguson Award for Biology Education.

Bertani later added another course to her repertoire, Bi10, Intro to Molecular Biology, which she co-taught with Caltech biology professor Raymond Deshaies for 16 years. Bertani’s last Bi180 class concluded in 2016, followed by her last Bi10 class in 2018.

Looking back on those classes, Bertani reflects that Caltech students “have always been bright.” One who particularly stands out in her memory is Viviana Gradinaru (BS ’05), now a Caltech professor of neuroscience and biological engineering, a Heritage Medical Research Institute investigator, and director of the Center for Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech. “I knew she was going to go off and do great things,” Bertani recalls. “It’s wonderful that she came back to Caltech to do them.”

To help ensure that Caltech remains a destination of choice for promising students and accomplished faculty members, the Bertani family has made several dozen gifts to Caltech, supporting the Caltech Alumni Fund, Friends of the Caltech Libraries, and Student Affairs, among others. “College is free in Sweden,” Bertani says. “But since it’s not free here, I think we all have to do our part to maintain excellence in higher education.”

Giving Priorities