Elaine Fuchs

Elaine Fuchs (born 5 May 1950) is an American cell biologist, famous for her work on the biology and molecular mechanisms of mammalian skin and skin diseases, and has led the modernization of dermatology. Fuchs also pioneered reverse genetics approaches, which assess protein function first and then assesses its role in development and disease. In particular, Fuchs researches skin stem cells, and their production of hair and skin. As an HHMI investigator, she is currently the Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development at The Rockefeller University.


Cell biologist Elaine Fuchs has spent a prestigious career studying various aspects of skin and hair, garnering many awards and contributing to science and society in ways that are hard to enumerate. Her research has not only shed light on the diseases affecting skin tissues, but indeed on aspects of skin growth and regeneration that touch many other disciplines and areas of science including stem cell research, cancer research, tissue repair and regeneration.

She was born in Hinsdale, Illinois, on May 5, 1950.[1] Fuchs grew up outside Chicago, in a family of scientists—her father, aunt, and sister were also scientists, and her family encouraged her to pursue higher education.[2] She feels that those influences were especially important to her as a child. During an interview with Faiza Elmasry in 2010, Fuchs said, "I think like many of the children in our world, I got interested in science just from having a butterfly net and from having a few strainers and some boots and going down to the streams and creeks and being out in the fields." [3] Even her mother, who was a homemaker, inspired her to pursue her interest in science at a time when not many women went into the scientific fields. "She was a housewife but she took pride in everything that she did. She encouraged my sister and I in all different ways. My mom always said, 'You're a good cook, you'll make a fine scientist,' when I told her that I like science. So I think those kinds of little things maybe are more important that any of the bigger things." [4]

Fuchs earned a B.S. in chemistry in 1972 from the University of Illinois, graduating with highest distinction in the Chemical Sciences. She began as one of only three women in an undergraduate physics class of 200. Fuchs was politically active during college, protesting the Vietnam War and applying to the Peace Corps with the intention of being posted in Chile. However, when she was instead assigned to Uganda, then under the dictatorship of Idi Amin, she elected to go directly to graduate school instead.[5]

When applying to graduate school, Fuchs again demonstrated her naturally rebellious temperament by actually refusing to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). During an interview in 2009, Fuchs stated, “…I felt that the Graduate Record Examination wasn’t testing my real knowledge, but rather how I could perform in a written exam.” Instead, she submitted a three-page explanation with her applications to grad school explaining why she would not be taking the GRE. Though she was accepted everywhere she applied, she admits that her defiant statement would not likely be looked upon the same way today. “I don’t think professors are as open-minded toward rebellious students as they were during the Vietnam War era.” [6]

Fuchs earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Princeton University, working with Charles Gilvarg. For her doctoral work, Fuchs studied changes in bacterial cell walls—the biosynthesis and assembly of the cell wall of bacillus megaterium. Fuchs began her career-defining work on skin biology during her postdoctoral work with Howard Green at MIT. In Green's lab she studied the mechanisms underlying growth and differentiation in epidermal keratinocytes.

Fuchs accepted a faculty position at the University of Chicago in 1980, as the first woman in the biochemistry department. Her first publications there reported the first cloning and sequencing of keratin cDNAs that characterized the two types of keratins.,[7][8] At the University of Chicago she was mentored and befriended by Janet Rowley and Susan Lindquist, and eventually they all joined the reorganized Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, in which Fuchs was ultimately appointed the Amgen Professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology. In 2002, Fuchs accepted a position at Rockefeller University, where she is currently the Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development and the HHMI.

Throughout her career she has made a point of trying to “give back” and support young scientists just as she felt supported and encouraged during her early education and career. During the interview with Elmasry in 2010, Fuchs commented on her potential influence as a role model to students and, in particular, to women who might aspire to go into scientific fields: "This past year, I was a visiting scholar for the Phi Beta Kappa Society and went to small liberal arts colleges in the United States, and not only gave public lectures about science, but also research lectures, and then also spoke with women about the importance of bringing their intellectual force, which is formidable, to the scientific arena in the future." [9]

Fuchs is known for her support of women in science, and has stated that “Senior women who are recognized by their peers as being successful have a responsibility to help educate those scientists who haven't quite accepted this important message. And we have a responsibility to maintain the highest scientific and ethical standards and to serve as the best role models we can for the younger generation of outstanding scientists – both men and women – who are rising through the ranks. Leading by good example is still the best way to diffuse the now more subtle and less vocal, but nevertheless lingering, discrimination and dogmatism against women scientists within our scientific community.” [10] Because there were few women in leadership roles doing laboratory research when Fuchs began her career, she often faced subtle discrimination. She related a story from her early days in Chicago when a technician from one of the other labs, seeing her setting up her new lab, asked if she was Dr. Fuchs’ new technician. She had to answer that, “I am Dr. Fuchs!”[11]

Demonstrating just how far society has come regarding recognition of women in science, in 2009 Fuchs was awarded the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for her outstanding scientific work and also as a tribute for being a role model and source of inspiration to aspiring women scientists from around the world.,[12][13]

Fuchs said of the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award, "It's also a wonderful concept to reward a woman from each of the five major regional areas in which science is being conducted around the world, in a celebration of not only women in science, but also the importance of science in a world community." [14] Fuchs has also continued her concern for social and ethical issues, remarking at 2000 commencement address at the University of Chicago: “I now balance the joy of discovery with the necessity of taking seriously ethical and educational concerns at the nexus of science and society today. Indeed, for the world of science to be a successful one, it must be a science of the world. It must be a science that embodies concern for the world of the next millennium. Your education has taught you to be morally and ethically responsible, and to bring philosophical reflection into your chosen profession, your community, and your life as a whole.” [15]

Fuchs is married to a fellow academic, David Hansen. She currently sits on the board of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. She was elected president of the American Society for Cell Biology in 2001. In 2009 Fuchs was awarded the United States’ highest honor for scientific contributions, the National Medal of Science, by President Barack Obama. At the time Fuchs was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator at The Rockefeller University studying mammalian skin diseases.[16]

In 2015 she was awarded the American Society for Cell Biology’s highest scientific honor, the E.B Wilson Medal. Amy Wagers of Harvard University, writing to nominate Fuchs for the award, said of her, “Over the past 30 years, Dr. Fuchs has performed ground-breaking work that has led a revolution in our understanding of the biology of mammalian skin and revealed broad paradigms that regulate tissue regenerative stem cells across organ systems.” Indeed, her work has spanned the fields of cell biology, dermatology, genetics, cancer research, and stem cell research.[17]

Fuchs’ lifetime research emphasis has centered on the study of skin and hair. But her contributions have not been limited to the basics of the study of skin and hair diseases.[18]


Fuchs is known for revolutionizing the study of skin, identifying the molecular mechanisms underlying skin disease, developing the field of skin stem cells, and pioneering reverse genetics.

Her Dickson Prize nominator said of Fuchs that "Her innovative reverse genetic approach and landmark discoveries in our understanding of the underlying bases for inherited human disorders and cancers places her in the top cadre of the most creative scientists worldwide." She is listed as one of the ISI's most highly cited researchers.[19]

Fuchs uses the mouse and mammalian epithelial stem cell culture as model systems.

Recently, she has been devoting her research to studies on the role stem cells play in the regeneration of tissue. When a skin cell, for example, is damaged it must rely on its ability to renew itself. One of her more recent papers gives an overview of epithelial stem cells and how they maintain homeostasis. This could have implications for stem cells, cancer, wound healing, and tissue repair and regeneration.[20]

Also importantly, Elaine Fuchs and her team have conducted research on the way that cancer stem cells interact with their microenvironments. Through examining skin cancer in mice, she concluded that the speed at which stem cells will divide and how they divide is dependent on their niche. For example, she examined the inhibitory signaling molecule, TGF-beta, which is found near the blood vessels of a tumor. The effects of TGF-beta and how it restrains normal skin cell growth had been studied by researchers before Fuchs. However, she specifically looked at the intermediate steps of tumor progression by creating a TGF-beta reporter system. She accomplished this by developing tumors that expressed a gene commonly found in skin cancer cells, HRasD12V. Her research demonstrated that the cancerous stem cells lacking the TGF-beta are unable to stop growing, but, however, they are sensitive to antiproliferative drugs. This is unlike the cancerous stem cells which do contain TGF-beta. They were found to be resistant to aniproliferative drugs, although they grow at a much slower rate. They found, in other words, that TGF-beta responding cells are still malignant in their slow proliferative state but are actually resistant to chemotherapy drugs, such as cisplatin. Fuchs determined that both the factors internal to the cell and the cell’s external surrounding environment have an effect on the stem cells’ “stemness,” their ability to divide, and how they divide.[21]

Graduates of Fuchs' Lab

Select honors

Elected to

  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1994)
  • Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences (1994)
  • National Academy of Sciences (1996)
  • American Academy of Microbiology (1997)
  • German Society of Dermatology (2001)
  • Harvey Society (2004)
  • New York Academy of Sciences (2004)
  • American Philosophical Society (2005)
  • Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science (2008)
  • Foreign Member, European Molecular Biology Organization (2010)
  • Fellow, Academy of the American Association for Cancer Research (2013)
  • Pontifical Academy of Sciences (2018)

Honorary degrees

  • Mt. Sinai School of Medicine at New York University (2003)
  • University of Illinois (2006)
  • Harvard University (2016)


University of Illinois:

  • Phi Beta Kappa
  • Sigma Xi
  • Agnes Sloan Larson Award
  • Reynold Clayton Fuson Award
  • James Scholar
  • Bronze Tablet (top 3% of class)
  • Graduated w tih highest distinction in the curriculum


  • Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Research Fellow

Univ. Chicago:

  • Andrew Mellon Fellow (1981)
  • Searle Scholar (1981-1983)
  • NIH Career Development Award (1982-1987)
  • Presidential Young Investigator (1984-1989)
  • Nation's 100 brightest scientists under 40 (Science Digest, 1984)
  • Nation's Outstanding Scientists, White House (1985)
  • R.R. Bensely Award (Amer. Association of Anatomists, 1988)
  • Montagna Award (Soc. Invest. Dermatology, 1995)
  • Keith Porter Lecture (ASCB, 1996)
  • Senior Women's Career Achievement Award (ASCB, 1997)
  • Convocation Address, (U Chicago, 1999)
  • Richard Lounsbery Award (National Academy of Sciences, 2001)
  • Cartwright Award (Columbia, 2002)

Rockefeller University:

  • Cruikshank Award Lecture (Gordon Research Conferences, 2002)
  • Richard Lounsbery Lecture (Sackler Symposium on Regenerative Medicine, NAS, 2002)
  • Novartis Award in Biomedical Research shared with Phil Sharp and David Botstein (2003)
  • Dickson Prize in Medicine (2004)
  • FASEB Award for Scientific Excellence (2006)
  • Beering Award (2006)
  • Lecturer, College de France (by Invitation of the Assembly of Professors) (2008)
  • Visiting Scholar, Phi Beta Kappa (2009-2010)
  • National Medal of Science (2009)
  • L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science ('10)[22]
  • Madison Medal (Princeton University, 2011)
  • Passano Award (2011)
  • Albany Medical Center Prize (2011)
  • March of Dimes Prize (2012)
  • New York Academy of Medicine Medal for Biomedical Research (2012)
  • American Skin Association Lifetime Achievement Award (2013)
  • Kligman-Frost Leadership Award, Society of Investigative Dermatology (2013)
  • Pasarow Award for Cancer Research (2013)
  • 2015 E.B. Wilson Medal, ASCB (2015)


  1. National Science and Technology Foundation. (2008). Elaine Fuchs: national medal of science. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://www.nationalmedals.org/laureates/elaine-fuchs
  2. Fiona Watt. "Women in Cell Science: Elaine Fuchs", Journal of Cell Science, v. 117, n. 4877-4879 (2004).
  3. Elmasry, Faiza. (2010). Cell Biologist Elaine Fuchs: Revolutionizing the Study of Skin. VOA. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://www.voanews.com/a/cell-biologist-elaine-fuchs-revolutionizing-the-study-of-skin--89387832/163710.html
  4. Elmasry, Faiza. (2010). Cell Biologist Elaine Fuchs: Revolutionizing the Study of Skin. VOA. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://www.voanews.com/a/cell-biologist-elaine-fuchs-revolutionizing-the-study-of-skin--89387832/163710.html
  5. Fiona Watt. "Women in Cell Science: Elaine Fuchs", Journal of Cell Science, v. 117, n. 4877-4879 (2004).
  6. Short, B. (2009). Elaine Fuchs: A love for science that’s more than skin deep. The Journal of Cell Biology, 187(7), 938–939. http://doi.org/10.1083/jcb.1877pi
  7. Hanukoglu I, Fuchs E (Nov 1982). "The cDNA sequence of a human epidermal keratin: divergence of sequence but conservation of structure among intermediate filament proteins". Cell. 31 (1): 243–252. doi:10.1016/0092-8674(82)90424-X.
  8. Hanukoglu I, Fuchs E (Jul 1983). "The cDNA sequence of a Type II cytoskeletal keratin reveals constant and variable structural domains among keratins". Cell. 33 (3): 915–924. doi:10.1016/0092-8674(83)90034-X
  9. Elmasry, Faiza. (2010). Cell Biologist Elaine Fuchs: Revolutionizing the Study of Skin. VOA. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://www.voanews.com/a/cell-biologist-elaine-fuchs-revolutionizing-the-study-of-skin--89387832/163710.html
  10. Fiona Watt. "Women in Cell Science: Elaine Fuchs", Journal of Cell Science, v. 117, n. 4877-4879 (2004).
  11. Short, B. (2009). Elaine Fuchs: A love for science that’s more than skin deep. The Journal of Cell Biology, 187(7), 938–939. http://doi.org/10.1083/jcb.1877pi
  12. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Gender and science. 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards for number 2 Retrieved November 20, 2017, from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/priority-areas/gender-and-science/for-women-in-science-programme/2017-awards/
  13. Snyder, Bill. (2016) Rockefeller University’s Elaine Fuchs, Ph.D., named 2016 recipient of the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science. Vanderbilt University. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2016/11/28/rockefeller-universitys-elaine-fuchs-ph-d-named-2016-recipient-of-the-vanderbilt-prize-in-biomedical-science/
  14. Elmasry, Faiza. (2010). Cell Biologist Elaine Fuchs: Revolutionizing the Study of Skin. VOA. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://www.voanews.com/a/cell-biologist-elaine-fuchs-revolutionizing-the-study-of-skin--89387832/163710.html
  15. Elaine Fuchs (January 6, 2000). "Address: Shapes of an Education at the University of Chicago". University of Chicago
  16. Howard Hughes Medical Institute. (2009). Elaine Fuchs to Receive National Medal of Science. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from http://www.hhmi.org/news/elaine-fuchs-receive-national-medal-science
  17. Fleischman, John. (2015). From Skin Cells to Stem Cells, Pioneer Researcher Elaine Fuchs Wins Cell Biologists’ Highest Honor. ASCB. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from http://www.ascb.org/ascb-post/from-skin-cells-to-stem-cells-pioneer-researcher-elaine-fuchs-wins-cell-biologists-highest-honor/
  18. (2017). Elaine Fuchs, PhD. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from http://www.hhmi.org/scientists/elaine-fuchs
  19. ISI, Highly Cited Researchers Version 1.1. Retrieved November 29, 2006.
  20. Skin and Its Regenerative Powers: An Alliance between Stem Cells and Their Niche. Gonzales, Kevin Andrew Uy et al. Developmental Cell , Volume 43 , Issue 4 , 387 - 401
  21. Fuchs E., Tumber T., Guasch G. (2004). Socializing with the neighbors: stem cells and their niche. The Cell. Vol. 116, 769–778
  22. L'OREAL-UNESCO Awards and Fellowships for Women in Science 2010 to be presented at UNESCO, UNESCO.org, Retrieved 14 November 2015
Preceded by
Richard Hynes
ASCB Presidents
Succeeded by
Gary Borisy
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