The scenic route: Newest Whitehead Fellow Silvi Rouskin followed an unconventional path to Cambridge

Silvi Rouskin

Thanks to a generous gift from longtime Whitehead supporters Andria and Paul Heafy, Rouskin will operate her lab officially as the Andria and Paul Heafy Fellow of Whitehead Institute.

Spend a little time with Silvi Rouskin and it quickly becomes apparent that she’s a perfect fit for the Whitehead Fellows Program. Or is it that the program is a perfect fit for her?

Her unlikely path to Whitehead Institute— where she arrived in January as its newest Fellow—was shaped by a series of life-altering decisions that could only have been made by someone who is fearless, relentless, and fiercely independent. Precisely the traits the Institute seeks in its young Fellows.

Rouskin was born in Communist Bulgaria to rock musicians (dad was a drummer, mom a singer) who spent most of the first five years of her life performing in Norway. Raised by her grandparents during that time, she says she felt as though she didn’t really meet her parents until she was six. Although her parents’ time in Norway earned them fame and considerable fortune, Rouskin herself was not a fan.

“They just seemed kind of crazy to me,” she says. “I was much more conservative.”

Lacking musical inclination, she turned to science. She fell in love with chemistry, was intrigued by biology, and was enthralled with the critical thinking both demanded. In her teenage years, Communism in Bulgaria began to crumble, and for the first time in her life, international travel became a real possibility. At 15, she enrolled in a high school student exchange program that landed her in, of all places, Idaho.

“That was a tough adjustment,” she concedes. Intent on keeping her time in Idaho as brief as possible, she quickly earned her GED, took the ACT college aptitude test and applied to college at age 16. Coming from Idaho and having taken the ACT rather than the SAT worked against her—“It was hard to get into a good college from there,” she says—but Florida Institute of Technology took a chance and offered her an enticing scholarship.

Next stop: Melbourne, Florida, where she majored in physics and pursued a concentration in biochemistry. Passionate enough to pursue a graduate degree in life sciences, she applied to some of the best schools in the country, including MIT, Stanford, UC San Francisco, and Harvard.

“I had no safety school, and I got rejected by all of them,” she says, “But I wasn’t discouraged.”

What happened next proves that “discouraged” isn’t on her emotional spectrum. While spend­ing time probing the ins and outs of the cell cycle in a poorly equipped undergraduate lab, she caught wind of new microarray technology that was transforming studies of gene expres­sion. At the time, use of the technology was being pioneered by three renowned scientists: Patrick Brown at Stanford, Michael Eisen at UC Berkeley, and Joe DeRisi at UCSF.

“I decided I wanted to go work with one of them, so I bought a plane ticket to San Francisco to go see them,” Rouskin recalls. “I stayed at a hostel and then went and tried to find them.”

Stanford, she realized, would be too difficult for her to reach. Security at UC Berkeley kept her from getting to Eisen, but, as luck would have it, DeRisi was just moving into new office space at the school’s Mission Bay campus. Rouskin walked right in and introduced herself.

“He was pretty surprised,” she says, smiling. As she explained her interests, DeRisi mentioned that there might be an upcoming opening for a technician in his lab. “He told me there was a tech leaving in five months. What I heard was, ‘You can have the job in five months,’ but what he really said was, ‘You can apply in five months’. So, five months later, I moved there. It turns out they interviewed a lot of people, but I got the position.”

Rouskin spent three fleeting years in the DeRisi lab, using microarrays to detect and track viral respiratory infections in adult and pediat­ric populations. Armed with vital experience and glowing recommendations from DeRisi, she applied to graduate programs at the same schools that had rejected her earlier. This time, they all accepted her. Torn between MIT and UCSF, she opted to stay in the Bay Area.

Initially unsure about what to study, she landed in the lab of Jonathan Weissman, where she spent more than six years using deep sequenc­ing technology to probe messenger RNA (mRNA) structure and its relationship to rates of protein translation and its effects on gene expression. Her thesis project was a challeng­ing one—perhaps complicated somewhat by marriage and the birth of her first child, both of which occurred in the middle of her stud­ies—but it ultimately led her to Cambridge.

She admits that as she concluded her gradu­ate work, she wasn’t certain what her next step would be. She knew of the Whitehead Fellows Program, in part because during her stint at UCSF she got to know David Pincus, who became a Whitehead Fellow three years ago. Weissman told her Whitehead’s program would be ideal and submitted a letter on her behalf, which in turn resulted in an invitation to apply formally.

“It was the only job I applied for,” she says, not­ing how familiar that story now sounds. “I had no Plan B. I guess when you have no Plan B, you really push hard for Plan A.”

So here she is, thrilled to be continuing her work on mRNA structure, in particular using Drosophila melanogaster to determine the dis­tribution and changes of mRNA structures during oogenesis and embryogenesis.

“It’s the ultimate dream to have your own lab,” she says. “It’s the ultimate freedom.”

It’s a freedom she earned with smarts and stubbornness and an extraordinary tolerance for risk.

“I had nothing to lose,” she says in reflection. “I felt indestructible in a way. I thought, ‘I’m going to find a way to do what I want’.”