Heather Stieglitz Kupersztoch

Research Associate

Location: Dallas, TX

"Mom always told me that I could do whatever I set my mind to. Her friends thought I should become a teacher and get married, but Mom was delighted that I was going to go to California to study science."

Born in 1944, I just missed being a baby boomer. Where I grew up, girls were supposed to go to college only to become teachers and get married. But I liked science and at the University of Michigan I picked an obscure program that included a lot of introductory science courses with lots of students and curved grading scales. I expected to eventually find myself at the lower end of the curve. But I never did.

At Michigan I did basic microbiology research for a year with a wonderful mentor who gave me the confidence to continue on to graduate school. I remember needing a recommendation letter from him and being afraid to ask; he had seen all the mistakes I had made. When push finally came to shove and I had to make my move, unfortunately he was in the hospital with a collapsed lung. Instead of turning me down, though, he laughed and said he wondered when I was going to ask. Then he said it was not how many mistakes I made, but how many I made twice.

Off I went to graduate school in molecular biology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in 1966. My parents were very supportive. Mom always told me that I could do whatever I set my mind to. Her friends thought I should become a teacher and get married, but Mom was delighted that I was going to go to California to study.

UCSD was still being built and La Jolla, where it’s located, was not even on the map I used to get there. Classes were very small seminars, and I just knew someone was soon going to discover that I didn’t belong there, that the acceptance was a mistake. I felt outclassed. After two years and passing my qualifying exam (surprise), I left. I mean I really left, even though I had the chance to pursue a PhD and the school said it would give me a year off. I knew I was never coming back.

They were right, I was wrong. After working as a laboratory technician for a year, I decided to return to school. I completed my doctorate under the mentorship of another absolutely wonderful man. He believed that everyone could contribute to this world be they a teacher, a researcher or a big, important professor. He encouraged me to go for it – and my “it” was to work in the lab and enjoy my research.

Due to the influence of my two mentors (interestingly, both of whom had wives who were professionals), I have always followed my heart and listened to my gut. After graduate school, I moved to Mexico with my husband. I worked as a researcher for 10 years and gave birth to two sons. Then we moved back to the U.S., to Texas where I started working at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW).

Last year I retired from UTSW after 27 years. I ran my own research lab for 10 years, did research in the cancer center, became a science writer, and for the last 12 years did research in geriatrics and palliative care.

Still I find the need to meet challenges. I now work 60 percent time at the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation where technology is top dog. Now I, a pre-baby boomer, am learning from the young folk, and it’s wonderful.