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Spring 1999
Gene Hunter
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Leena Peltonen helped to put Finland on the map as a global powerhouse in genetic research. She hopes to do the same for UCLA
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By Mona Gable
Illustrations by Gary Tanhauser and Kevin McHugh

Leena 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.

At this point in her story, Peltonen, a vibrant woman with ash-blonde hair and warm brown eyes, smiles a dazzling smile.

"They 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!'"

Peltonen 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.

Since 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.

"Trying 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."

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