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Peltonen helped to put Finland on the map as a global powerhouse
in genetic research. She hopes to do the same for UCLA
Illustrations by Gary Tanhauser and Kevin McHugh
Peltonen remembers the moment she decided to leave her native
Finland to come to UCLA. It was a balmy evening two years ago,
and she had just been to dinner with some UCLA scientists, who
were trying to woo the world-famous geneticist with an attractive
job. Peltonen hadn't yet made up her mind. Now it was after dusk,
the Southern California air lovely and mild, and she was walking
back alone to the Westwood Marquis. Just as she crossed in front
of a little white church near the hotel, something magical happened
- something utterly unscientific: The church bells began to ring.
this point in her story, Peltonen, a vibrant woman with ash-blonde
hair and warm brown eyes, smiles a dazzling smile.
started to play Finlandia," she recalls. "I went to my
room and called my husband and said, 'I am so tempted by this possibility
that I really would like to go.' He was in London. He said, 'OK,
let's do it!'"
laughs and leans in closer, as though she is telling you a secret.
It's a striking gesture, warm and unaffected, especially coming
from one of the world's foremost geneticists. With her penchant
for bright suits, painted nails and tasteful gold jewelry, the 47-year-old
researcher more closely resembles a high-energy CEO than a fusty
bench scientist. But then, this is how some of her scientific colleagues
describe the head of UCLA's new Department of Human Genetics: dynamic,
charismatic, a people person.
arriving in Westwood in July, Peltonen's presence has triggered
excitement throughout UCLA's scientific community, from microbiology
to psychiatry, realizing, as it does, a 20-year dream to found a
genetics department in the School of Medicine. Though UCLA has long
had a core of remarkable geneticists - Jake Lusis, David Eisenberg
and Elizabeth Neufeld, among them - they were dispersed across campus
and lacked their own department. This glaring omission was due to
the usual variables of faculty moves and budget woes, and was only
rectified because of the unprecedented $45-million gift from Leslie
and Susan Gonda to build the Gonda (Goldschmied) Center, a state-of-the-art
neuroscience and genetics facility.
to make due by putting together what people in one department were
doing with what people in another department were doing didn't work
very well. It was a real minus for UCLA," says Neufeld, a professor
of biological chemistry, who played a key role in recruiting Peltonen.
"Now, with Dr. Peltonen's arrival and the opening of the Gonda
Center, we feel very much enriched. To have a department with a
chair who's a scientist of international reputation means we can
attract a lot of scientists, we can make advances in the area. It
could have an enormous impact in the field."