Nationally recognized biochemist Maria Linder has spent 45 years of her career at Cal State Fullerton, garnering numerous awards for her research into the functions of copper and iron in mammalian biology along the way. Linder, professor of biochemistry since 1977 and chair of the department from 2004 to 2010, most appreciates getting to work with students through her teaching and in her research laboratory. Now, she plans to launch a scholarship to support aspiring biochemists financially as they obtain their master’s degrees.
Finding Her Focus
Growing up, Linder spent time around a family member who was a biochemist and who inspired her interest in the field. Although deeply appreciative of her liberal arts education, she chose a career in biochemistry because she liked to be challenged.
In 1960, Linder earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Vassar College. She went on to attain her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard University in 1966, completed postdoctoral training in biological chemistry at Harvard Medical School in 1968, and completed postdoctoral training in physiological chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1970. MIT is where she began her life’s research work.
“Working with the students helps me feel alive and encouraged about the future.”
Professor of Biochemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Linder had always been interested in nutrients and their functions in the body. At Harvard, she studied how the metabolism of amino acids is regulated by hormones. At MIT, she began to study how uptake and storage of iron occurs in mammals, and then developed an interest in copper metabolism as well. Linder is now one of the world’s leading experts on copper molecules in blood, and her laboratory focuses on how the functions of copper and iron are altered in different life phases and illnesses.
“Most people don’t think about it, but you can’t breathe without copper. You can’t live without copper,” she says. “There’s an awful lot still to be discovered, and I plan to continue focusing on iron and copper the rest of my life.”
Linder was a professor at MIT for six years before she found her long-term home at CSUF.
“I was one of seven women faculty members at MIT,” Linder says. “I could’ve stayed, but then I met my late husband, Gordon Nielson, in Boston while he was there on temporary business.”
Nielson had already committed to starting a business in California, so Linder says she had a decision to make.
“I really liked working with students at MIT, but teaching was only a small percentage of my role there,” she says. “So, I began applying to open positions around California, including CSUF.”
Commencing a Career at Cal State Fullerton
In 1977, she accepted an associate professor of biochemistry position in CSUF’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
“I was introduced to two other biochemists, who were wonderful colleagues and scientists, and it was a very wonderful environment,” Linder says, adding that the department continues to maintain this positive environment and to employ talented faculty.
During her time at the University, Linder has earned significant recognition for her work. Some of her most notable awards include the American Chemical Society Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, the Outstanding Professor and L. Donald Shields Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activity Awards at Cal State Fullerton, and the California State University Wang Family Excellence Award for natural sciences.
“I was probably happiest about being elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, because it’s such an honor,” she says. She received the honor in 2015 for her contributions to the understanding of iron and copper metabolism in mammals.
Linder says teaching keeps her knowledge area broad, well-rounded, and current, instead of being focused on its narrower aspects.
“It also helps me see what’s coming up the pipeline in terms of the young people of today, who come from such diverse backgrounds to our campus for their education. It gives me hope, even in these dark times. Working with our students helps me feel alive and encouraged about the future,” she says.
At times, Linder says she’s had more students in her lab than any other faculty member; working on research and projects with them has been a highlight of her time at CSUF.
“I get to know them better in that setting, and I spend a great deal of time teaching and supporting them,” she says.
Linder has developed close friendships with many colleagues at CSUF over the many years she has been here, building bonds that have lasted for decades. “These wonderful personal friendships with colleagues and students have made my life richer,” she says. “Good camaraderie within the university and department is really important to me.”
Supporting Student Success
Now, Linder has announced she’ll be launching a scholarship to support students pursuing a biochemistry master’s degree.
“I’ve always wanted to contribute to CSUF,” she says. “Not much funding is available for students in the master’s program, so students aren’t able to earn their degrees quickly because they have to work to support themselves. It’s my hope that this will be of help.”
Linder says that she wants the master’s scholarship to be significant, so it may be a year or more before it’s available as the financial details are worked out, but she hopes it will make a difference.
“I want it to attract more students to the master’s program, keep quality students at CSUF, and help them stay afloat during the program,” she says.
A Place to Remember
Linder has long appreciated the support she has received at CSUF and how much she has been able to achieve with her research at the University.
“Interestingly, I continue to get citations on my work from way, way back, which makes me feel good,” she says.
She admires the emphasis that CSUF, and particularly her department, places on research for its students.
“It’s part of what makes our program really unique,” Linder says. “Students have to complete multiple research units for their degrees. They become proficient in applying their knowledge and skills in a lab environment, and it looks good on their CV. This also helps faculty get their research done.”
She praises the University’s diversity, too.
“It’s wonderful,” she says. “The students come from many different backgrounds. You also have many who come from families with no college experience. Once they get here, the college and lab can become like a second family to them. It’s one of the reasons I’m still teaching.”
Her advice for students interested in pursuing biochemistry?
“They should do what is most important or exciting for them, what matters to them,” she says. “We have a lot of advising in our department, and they should take advantage of that resource to help define that path.”