Geneticist Ahna Skop’s artistic background enhances her work in the lab

Early in Ahna Skop’s time as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a mentor’s remark in a lab caused a reckoning.
Ahna Skop
Photo by Hillary Schave

Early in Ahna Skop’s time as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a mentor’s remark in a lab caused a reckoning.

Skop had arrived in Madison in 1994 from Syracuse University to get her Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology. Word had circulated, as it often does in graduate schools, of her unusual background. Skop’s parents are artists and she’d minored in ceramics at Syracuse.

That day in the lab in Madison, with others standing nearby, a mentor told her she was “too creative for science.”

Just how wrong he was is evidenced by the rapid ascendency of Skop’s scientific career. In 2007, Skop, then 35 and on the UW–Madison faculty, went to the White House to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, widely considered the nation’s highest honor for young researchers.

Skop is a geneticist focused on how cells divide. She says that when she received the presidential award, her work involved the identification of 100 new proteins required for cell division, “which means these can all be potential targets for anti-cancer drugs.”

In March of this year, Skop was one of 120 contemporary female scientists honored with a life-sized, 3D-printed sculpture displayed in the Smithsonian Gardens in Washington, D.C., for an exhibit designed to inspire young girls to pursue careers in science.

Ahna5

Ahna Skop was one of 120 contemporary female scientists honored with a life-sized, 3D-printed sculpture displayed in the Smithsonian Gardens in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Ahna Skop)

But Skop’s subsequent success shouldn’t be taken as a sign that she simply brushed off the “you’re too creative for science” remark early during her time in Madison.

“I was devastated,” Skop says. “I didn’t feel welcome.”

She phoned her dad.

“That’s crazy,” he told her, naming a few of the numerous well-known scientists — Leonardo da Vinci among them — who were also artists. If anything, he said, creativity was important to science.

“I realized in that moment my dad was guiding me to find my own knowledge,” Skop says.

Michael Roe Skop had been guiding her, perhaps less explicitly, for years. Ahna Skop had an extraordinary childhood. Her father was a sculptor who also taught anatomy to medical students. He was a Zen master and football star; his wife, Kathleen, was a ceramicist, and a fabric and jewelry artist. The charismatic couple regularly drew students and the intellectually curious to Studio 70, a private art school at their home in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. (Michael Skop taught across the river at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.)

Ahna Skop

Photo by Hillary Schave

“A very rich environment,” Ahna Skop says. “There were actors and actresses, painters, philosophers, welders — lots of different people in my life.”

Skop attended Syracuse, where her dad had played college football and studied with the famed Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović. She landed a federally funded work-study position in Kevin Van Doren’s lab. They worked with tiny roundworms whose genetic model is useful in understanding human biology. It was an experience Skop later called life-changing.

Skop was gifted — brilliant — with most things visual, but she also has dyslexia and struggled with reading, writing and numbers. In Madison to earn her doctorate, Skop failed her grad school preliminary exam twice. But she had a meaningful exchange with John White, her Ph.D. adviser, who told her he’d once received a D in a math class. “He said, ‘I got a D in math but invented a microscope,’ ” she says, leading her to consider that ideas and hard work mattered more than grades and exams. When White retired from running his UW–Madison lab in 2008, Skop inherited his equipment, a passing of the torch she regarded as an honor.

Ahna Skop with a student

Photo by Jeff Miller/UW–Madison

Skop originally came to Madison for grad school in 1994 because several of her Syracuse mentors had studied here and recommended it. “I thought it was just cheese, cows and the Packers,” she says.

Instead, Skop was impressed by the number of women among the science faculty and fell in love with the city, its food culture and its early embrace of the farm-to-table movement.

“People really care about each other in Madison,” she says.

After doing postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, Skop accepted a UW–Madison faculty position in 2004.

Along with her groundbreaking science, Skop has advanced the science-art connection in public forums and numerous other ways. It started at Syracuse, where as an undergrad she re-created microscopy images from textbooks in clay form — impressing both the science and art sides of the aisle.

Now, Skop says she is one of the only scientists in the world who is affiliated with a campus art department.

Ahna Skop in front of art and phots

Photo by Hillary Schave

“I train artists in my lab. I have a sculptor in my lab now,” she says. “I’m training the artists to learn the science and communicate it better.”

Skop has also long written a food blog, foodskop, and created a website called Lab Culture, which has a tagline of “a recipe for innovation in science.” It gathers recipes and favorite foods from scientists, humanizing them in the process and perhaps helping make science less daunting to a wider public.

To that end, Skop — who spent this summer on a semester-long sabbatical at a Seattle lab — hopes to initiate a series of dinners in which scientists dine with families around Madison.

Ahna Skop

Photo by Hillary Schave

“We’ll connect kids with scientists over a meal,” Skop says.

No one at those tables will need to worry about being told they are too creative for a career in science.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” at madisonmagazine.com/dougmoe.

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