Irrepressible Paola Timiras survived World War II to champion education on aging. She's still going strong.
Over lunch at the Women's Faculty Club at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, neuroendocrinologist Paola Timiras (pictured left) is discussing a radical mission: creating an undergraduate major in gerontology. "Faculty, space, and financing," Timiras says, ticking off each item on her fingers. Those three resources, she tells her two colleagues, are what she'll need to achieve her goal, but they've been in limited supply.
The mission will be a tough one, Timiras says, because--as is typical of colleges in the United States--aging is not a top priority at UC Berkeley. Yet, she says, "it is a social duty of the university to teach about all the phases of life."
Timiras speaks like a true Berkeley activist, but she looks nothing like the long-haired young rabble-rousers that her university is famous for breeding. At 79, she is short, stout, and wrinkled, with keen blue eyes that peer out from behind big plastic glasses. Nonetheless, for almost 4 decades, Timiras has advanced the field of aging. She has mentored or sponsored more than 86 grad students, postdocs, and visiting foreign professors. Although she is a professor emerita, Timiras still teaches and advises students, and she has just published her 15th scientific textbook.
And, as her plans for the future make clear, Timiras hasn't yet run out of steam--or chutzpah. Her lunch meeting focuses on how best to use a large grant--$100,000 per year for 5 years--that the U.S. National Institute on Aging awarded to Timiras last May. Designated for promoting education and research on aging at UC Berkeley, part of the money will support faculty and student research on the topic. But if she can persuade the administration, Timiras would also use the funds to design a formal program in gerontology for not only undergrads but grad students, too. She claims that she was surprised to win the grant, figuring, ironically enough, that her age would be a handicap. If she had been on the panel that reviewed her proposal, Timiras says, "I would think, 'Why should you give to somebody who might drop dead?' " But now, she adds with a smile, "I have resolved to live five more years in order that I should spend the money."
A Childhood Shaped by Politics and War
Spending time with Timiras is like taking a walk through history. She was born in Rome in 1923, around the time Mussolini grabbed power in Italy. Her father, a statistician who directed the national census bureau, participated in antifascist politics and fled to Paris when she was 2. An only child, she and her mother stayed in Italy but made extended visits to France, where she sporadically attended school. There, Timiras encountered prejudice from her classmates--one time, when a boy called her an ethnic epithet, she gave him a black eye--and resolved to outshine them.
"I enjoyed the teaching and studying and wanted to do as well as I could," Timiras says. She always placed first in her class in academic performance, and she credits her French education for fostering within her a spirit of competitiveness that has propelled her career. "When you do something, you want to do it the best that you can--better than somebody else," she says.
Inspired by her grandfather and an uncle, both well-respected physicians, Timiras dreamed from childhood of becoming a doctor. She completed her baccalaureate studies in the humanities at the University of Grenoble in France, but when she returned home and applied to medical school at the University of Rome, administrators there wouldn't recognize her foreign diploma. So she repeated her degree at the University of Rome and started her medical education in 1941. With Europe embroiled in World War II, times were tough. Her father couldn't get money to the family, so Timiras scraped by on lire that she earned by translating scientific articles from French and English into Italian. The war cast a pall of anxiety over her scholarly routines, and it intruded explosively on a few occasions: Once, Timiras recounts, she was studying at home in her garden with a friend, when "all of a sudden there was this big noise." A bomb had fallen nearby, striking the villa of a medical school professor.
But when Rome was liberated in the summer of 1944, Timiras--and all of Rome's residents--could finally start to get on with life. On 6 June, she watched from her home on a wide, tree-lined, ancient Roman road as the Allied troops marched into the city in single file, alongside a convoy of American jeeps. "Everybody was clapping. ... I was very moved and thanking God every minute that finally, this was probably the end of our suffering in Rome and probably the beginning of the end of the war."
As her medical training progressed, Timiras, one of only half a dozen women in a class of 200, made a painful discovery: Society was not ready for women doctors. The problem wasn't the male students or teachers. "I was terrorized by the patients," she says. When she and her female classmates made rounds at the hospital, patients would "start screaming at the nurses, 'Who are these girls? What are they going to do to me?' " she says. As a result, Timiras says, she felt timid and hesitant at the bedside when it came to making diagnoses.
Dissuaded by academic pressures or personal wartime troubles, most of the other women dropped out of the program. Timiras persisted, however, and graduated in 1947. By then, she was newly married to Nicholas Timiras, a Romanian diplomat to the Vatican. Romania was in upheaval: Under Soviet occupation, a Communist regime wrested power from its longtime monarchy and recalled all diplomats. "Two diplomats went home and were immediately put in prison," Timiras says. "So my husband decided not to go."
Making Tracks for North America--and Academia
With help from the Vatican's secretary of state--who later became Pope Paul VI--the couple sought refuge in Montreal, Canada. Discouraged by her experiences with hostile patients, Timiras decided to pursue an academic career instead of practicing medicine. In medical school, she had done a research thesis project on menopausal women, which showed that estrogen is metabolized in the liver. She found herself enjoying the deductive reasoning of scientific exploration and the challenge and satisfaction of solving a puzzle. In Canada, she met University of Montreal endocrinologist Hans Selye, who had developed the first theories about the body's hormonal responses to stress. At his suggestion, Timiras applied for and won a research fellowship that allowed her to work in his lab. There, she studied how stress influences the immune system through the effects of adrenocortical hormones, and she earned a Ph.D. in experimental medicine and surgery in 1952. Before she finished her degree, the university hired her as an assistant professor.
In a related research project, Timiras injected young and old rats with overdoses of adrenocortical hormones to test how the treatment altered their brain structure; the brain hemorrhaged and swelled, more so in the elderly animals. Very little research had scrutinized the effects of hormones on the brain, so she decided to focus on this area. In 1954, she moved to Salt Lake City to pursue that line of inquiry in the pharmacology department at the University of Utah. Her husband, meanwhile, took a job teaching Romanian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. In 1955, Timiras followed him to California, joining the physiology department at UC Berkeley, where she has remained ever since. She has continued exploring how glucocorticoids, thyroid hormone, and other steroid hormones influence the brain, concentrating at first on their effects in postnatal development; since the '70s, she has delved increasingly into their influences as animals grow old. In recent years, her group has been probing whether estrogen protects nerve cells against age-related changes that cause memory loss.
Timiras's greatest contributions to the discipline of aging, colleagues say, have been her tireless efforts to educate others. In 1958, she took over a yearlong course on human physiology at UC Berkeley that was originally taught by gerontologist Nathan Shock, the first scientific director of the National Institute on Aging. Following Shock's example, Timiras always included three lectures about aging to emphasize the notion that human growth and development don't stop at adulthood but continue throughout life. A few years later, she created a separate class on the physiology of aging--the first at Berkeley and one of the first in the country, she says. Timiras still gives the same course, which draws more than 200 students a year, today (see "Telomeres, Apoptosis, and Senescence").
Since 1985, she has also taught a class called "Multidisciplinary Advances in Aging" that's innovative in another way: It encourages interaction between the young and old. Not only is the course open to the public--this semester's 125 enrollees include 15 elderly people--but undergrads volunteer at a nursing home or senior center and share their experiences in oral reports.
Energizing New Generations
Through her decades of lecturing, Timiras has inspired many young people to pursue studies in aging. Her influence is pervasive, according to molecular biologist Judith Campisi, who along with Timiras directs the Center for Research and Education in Aging (CREA) at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "No matter who I introduce her to," says Campisi, "that person seems to have taken a course from her at one time or another."
Timiras has also educated countless others by writing and editing books. When she began teaching her course on the physiology of aging, she found that she needed a textbook. Because none existed, she decided to write one and, in 1972, she published Developmental Physiology and Aging. It earned a rave review in The New England Journal of Medicine for its then-radical view that postnatal development and aging are two stages of one continuum. Fourteen years later, acting as editor, Timiras spun off a separate book wholly dedicated to gerontology, called Physiological Basis of Aging and Geriatrics (see "The Aging Body"). That book came out in its third edition in September 2002, with chapters written by friends, former students, and even family members: Daughter Mary Letitia Timiras, chief of geriatrics at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey, contributed sections on the kidneys, skin, and pharmacology.
The book is "the finest authoritative source," comprehensively pulling together current knowledge on physiology, aging, and geriatrics, says biochemist Hal Sternberg, a former postdoc in Timiras's lab. "You can't find all that material anywhere else under one cover," he adds. Timiras put in many late nights editing manuscripts for the book, he says. "She is an extraordinarily fast reader who absorbs thoroughly when she reads. She'll review a manuscript that might be 30 or 50 pages long, and she will go through it all in an evening."
One of a Kind
Timiras has always stood out for her brains and her relentless drive to succeed, but her achievements are all the more remarkable for a woman competing in a field of men long before the equal rights movement picked up steam, admirers say. "It was unusual to have a woman with her kind of self-confidence and exquisite training," says Stanford University psychiatrist Regina Casper, another former Timiras postdoc. On several occasions during the '50s, Timiras recounts, scientists who invited her to speak at conferences were shocked when they met her. "They didn't know I was a woman. They had invited me, read my papers, and they expected a man." Timiras says that she felt she had to work harder and longer than her male colleagues did to earn their respect but, on the whole, she believes she has been treated fairly at Berkeley and in Utah. Timiras in turn paved the way for women scientists by welcoming them into her research group. "There were more women in her lab than in other labs," says Casper.
But Timiras encouraged all students and postdocs equally, whether they were women or men. "She functioned as a teacher and a parent," says Casper. "She knew the personal histories of all her students. She was invariably liked, loved, and admired." Sternberg so appreciated Timiras's guidance that 2 years ago, his small biomedical start-up company, BioTime Inc., set up an endowment to create CREA, Timiras's and Campisi's gerontology research center, in her honor. Timiras has always been generous and unselfish, he says, recalling what she did for a bright postdoc named Doherty Hudson, who developed multiple sclerosis after joining the lab. When Hudson became confined to a wheelchair, Timiras invited the younger woman to work in her office, where Hudson helped edit scientific papers and supervise students' research for 30 years before passing away in the early '90s.
In 1994, at age 71, Timiras officially retired. Her husband had developed dementia, and she focused on caring for him until his death in 1996. "Retirement" meant that Timiras scaled back on research activities but continued teaching. Even now, she goes to work every weekday. Although she suffers occasional pain from arthritis, her health is holding up well. "She's very feisty, very energetic," says Mary Letitia. "She complains that she doesn't have as much energy as she used to. But she had such an incredibly high energy level before that she's still pretty energetic."
As far as Timiras is concerned, she still has much work to do. She and her colleagues have started contacting all Berkeley faculty members whose research or teaching interests touch on aging. They plan to generate a critical mass of campus support for a gerontology program, then to approach the administration with the proposal. If their idea is rejected, Timiras says, she'll keep pushing for more faculty positions and research projects in the study of aging, so that others will be able to carry the torch when she is gone. "I'll keep going as long as I can," she says. "People ask me, 'But why are you working so hard?' I say, 'Well, I like it.' "
* Ingfei Chen writes from Santa Cruz, California. She would like to retire as soon as possible.