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Living for others

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2023 (Issue 170) 100 Years of Pediatrics


In memoriam: Zoe Nakos Canellakis, PhD

Zoe Nakos Canellakis, PhD, a senior research scientist at Yale School of Medicine in the Department of Pharmacology, was born September 7, 1927, in Lowell, Massachusetts, and died on October 22, 2022, at the age of 95 in Canaan, Connecticut. She received her undergraduate degree in economics at Vassar College in 1947, graduating Phi Beta Kappa; a Master of Science in biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley; and a PhD in physiological chemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1954 for her work on tyrosine aminotransferase. After a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale University, she joined the faculty in 1955. In her early career, at a time when molecular biology and the biochemistry underpinning genetics were just beginning, Canellakis discovered many basic features of the regulation of another important enzyme, ribonucleotide reductase, which helped advance our understanding of the biosynthesis of precursors for DNA replication

It is wasteful to train scientists who either leave science or fail to develop their full potential in science.

Zoe Nakos Canellakis, PhD

Canellakis was promoted to senior research associate in 1967 in the Department of Pharmacology. Despite a demanding role as assistant dean of the Graduate School from 1972–77, she continued to pursue research and provided fundamental insights into the biologic role of polyamine biosynthetic enzymes in cell growth, differentiation, and embryology. In 1982, she was named a senior research scientist of Internal Medicine and Pharmacology. Following a successful career as a scientist and leader as the assistant dean and as a fellow of Berkeley College from 1975 (advising countless undergraduates in their academic schedules and research theses), she retired in 1993 as Yale Emeritus faculty and a Koerner Fellow.

Throughout her career as a pioneer and champion of women in science, she mentored many women, helping them to achieve successful careers. As chair of the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women of the American Society of Biological Chemists and Carnegie Conference on Women keynote speaker, she organized panels that focused on helping scientists, especially women, advance along their chosen career paths. In a 1985 editorial, she wrote, “The need to ensure full participation of able and talented women in the active scientific community is clear. It is wasteful to train scientists who either leave science or fail to develop their full potential in science. Everyone gains by including able women in the profession.”

She had insatiable curiosity and was admired for her ability to quickly assemble a meal for two or 20 from her freezer, as well as her penchant for organizing her kitchen like a laboratory with all reagents alphabetically organized by their chemical names.

Canellakis will be remembered for her warm and generous mentorship and friendship, as well as her ability to connect people from her wide network of friends and colleagues. She changed the trajectory of many of her mentees’ lives. When one of them asked what they could do to thank her, she simply said, “do it for someone else.”

—Yuka Manabe, MD, professor of medicine at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Manabe, Yale College, BS ’87, worked in Canellakis’ lab and was a lifelong friend.

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