Perspectives Online

College Profile. Adding to a career of achievement and a stellar family history, cell biologist Dr. Nina Allen prepares to lead the N.C. State University Faculty Senate. By Terri Leith


Dr. Nina Allen patented methods she and her husband developed in video imaging of microscopic activity. As the granddaughter of the royal Danish astronomer and the daughter of an astrophysicist, she says, “My turning to biology and microscopy was not so strange. A telescope is just a microscope in reverse.”
Dr. Nina Allen patented methods she and her husband developed in video imaging of microscopic activity. As the granddaughter of the royal Danish astronomer and the daughter of an astrophysicist, she says, “My turning to biology and microscopy was not so strange. A telescope is just a microscope in reverse.”
(Photos by Daniel Kim)
In science, the prepared mind sees things that one might not expect to see. That’s the fun part of science.” So said Dr. Nina Strömgren Allen, director of the Cellular Molecular Imaging Facility at N.C. State University. Allen was specifically referring to a 2001 discovery she and research colleagues made revealing that plant cell nuclei can be deeply grooved and furrowed, and thus possess greater surface area than scientists previously realized.

Now, Allen, professor of botany in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, brings the same kind of readiness for what is expected, unexpected – and even fun — to her upcoming role as chair of N.C. State’s Faculty Senate.

Allen’s April election marks just the fourth time in the 50-year history of the Faculty Senate that a woman has been chosen as its leader. She will serve as chair-elect during the 2004-05 academic year and then will succeed Dr. Dennis Daley as she begins her two-year term in 2005.

“I hope to work closely with Dennis this year and will continue many of his efforts,” Allen said after her election. She also indicated that open communication would be a priority.

“I have always been a strong believer in active participation by faculty in decision-making on matters such as university policies and practices, so I will encourage faculty to become involved with the Faculty Senate,” she said.
Dr. Nina Allen. (Photo by Daniel Kim)
(Photo by Daniel Kim)
“I will work to have a continuing interchange of ideas and information between the administration and the senate. The chair of the senate represents the faculty in many ways and should be a strong voice for concerns of the faculty. I plan to make sure that the senators have time to voice their concerns about issues that arise.”

Allen herself has long been one of those senate voices, having served two terms in the senate (the second as the CALS senior senator) since joining the Department of Botany faculty in 1995. During her senate terms she served on the Executive Committee and chaired the governance Committee.

“I became more interested in the affairs of the university as a whole while serving on the senate and decided to run for chair-elect, hoping to make a difference to the university in the role of faculty advocate,” she said

Among her priorities as senate chair will be addressing university issues related to the state economy. “We have seen continuing budget cuts and partially offsetting tuition increases. Faculty and staff have had virtually no raises for three years, and their benefits are decreasing,” Allen said.

“It becomes increasingly difficult to hire and retain faculty of the caliber we need to go forward in our mission. It is important that the faculty be involved in and have an active voice in budgetary decision-making, as they have a grassroots understanding of the needs of the university.”

Allen is a founding member of N.C. State’s Association of Women Faculty, and as senate chair she intends to be a strong advocate for women in academia. “Certainly we need to look at the climate for women and minorities at N.C. State to make sure it is nurturing,” she said.

And certainly women in academia could find no stronger role model than Dr. Nina Allen. Hers is a remarkable history.
She was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, the daughter of Bengt and Sigrid Strömgren. Her grandfather, Elis Strömgren, was the royal Danish astronomer, and he taught classical astronomy to his son Bengt, who became an astronomer as well. In pursuing his 1927 Ph.D. at Copenhagen University, Bengt Strömgren studied with Dr. Niels Bohr, the 1922 Nobel Prize winner in physics. “My father was one of the first astrophysicists studying the hydrogen and helium content of the sun and was very lucky to be in the right time and place to do so,” Allen said.

'I have been proactive all my life, and I feel that it is important to do service that will help the university as a whole.’


Her grandmother, Hedvig Lidforss Strömgren, was a dentist and early feminist. “She wrote prize-winning feminist novels and also published the definitive bibliography of dental history,” Allen said. “She had the greatest influence on me and encouraged all intellectual endeavors, like learning languages, playing the piano and doing well in school.

“My grandmother spoke seven languages fluently – I only studied five – and when we had cakes and tea, one had to ask for the food in the language designated for the day.”

Allen’s grandmother encouraged her to think for herself, and her grandfather taught her algebra and astronomy when she was in second grade.
Both sets of lessons came into play when, in fourth grade, Nina finished her entire math book for the year in a week. The teacher tore the book up in front of the class, Allen said, and declared the girl’s accomplishment impossible. “What should I do for the rest of the year? I flunked math – I was on strike.”

Allen’s mother was accomplished in her own right as a dancer and a swimming and gymnastics teacher, “but she gave those up to raise children and further my father’s career,” Allen said.

Her father went from director of Yerkes Observatory at the University of Chicago, where the family moved from Copenhagen when Allen was 15, to Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). This was “in the days of Oppenheimer,” she said, referring to quantum physicist Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the institute from 1947 to 1966.

“My father was the first astronomer at IAS and had Albert Einstein’s old office – replete with 11 portraits of Einstein,” she said. “I grew up with many scientists coming through our home and didn’t realize at the time how famous they were or would be. My inquiring mind was helped by my father, who, when asked, would always give very long and careful answers to any science questions.
“So maybe my turning to biology and microscopy was not so strange. A telescope is just a microscope in reverse.”

Allen received her biology degree in 1957 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, graduating Phi Beta Kappa after three and a half years. She earned her 1970 master’s degree in botany and 1973 Ph.D. in plant physiology from the University of Maryland at College Park.
Allen's childhood home at Copenhagen's Royal Botanical Gardens inspired her love for gardening and the flower arranging she now does for stage décor at Raleigh Chamber Music Guild concerts, and more recently at her daughter's August wedding. (Photo by Daniel Kim)
Allen's childhood home at Copenhagen's Royal Botanical Gardens inspired her love for gardening and the flower arranging she now does for stage décor at Raleigh Chamber Music Guild concerts, and more recently at her daughter's August wedding.
(Photo by Daniel Kim)
Between degrees, through the 1950s and 1960s, she raised five children, while she remained academically active as a teaching assistant at both Wisconsin and Maryland. In the early 1970s, she worked as a research assistant at SUNY-Albany, and from 1970 to the present, she has served at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass., as a summer researcher, investigator, trustee, corporation member, executive committee member and, now, visiting scientist. (Currently, she is on search committees for the new director of the MBL and for the editor of Biological Bulletin, the MBL journal.)

She taught for eight years in the Biological Sciences Department at Dartmouth College, where she founded the Women in Science and Social Sciences program. She then joined the Biology Department at Wake Forest University, where she also was active in its Faculty Senate and where she remained for 11 years till she came to N.C. State in 1995. She also held a National Science Foundation visiting professorship for women at Stanford University from 1990-1991.

Her research at N.C. State has focused primarily on cell biology, on the study of cell motility and the cytoskeleton and their relation to signal transduction in plant cells — and on the development of better methods of video imaging of microscopic activity.

She was among the first to take the video camera and adapt it to computer imaging techniques to allow viewing of the dynamics of living cells.
Allen says that she learned modern cell biology and imaging as an National Institutes of Health post-doc in the lab of her husband, the late Dr. Robert Day Allen, a well-known biologist and expert microscopist.

Inspired by her father to make use of high-resolution video cameras being used by astronomers, Allen and her husband adapted video cameras for use with microscopes and then digitized the images to be fed to a computer. Computer enhancement allowed improved magnification, resolution and visibility of the microscopic images. Nina and Robert Allen patented the Allen Video Enhanced Contrast light microscopic method, or AVEC, in 1981.

These imaging processes are the foundation of the Cellular and Molecular Imaging Facility, the video microscopy lab specializing in imaging dynamic events in living cells, that Allen directs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

She teaches graduate courses in video microscopy and plant cell biology, and she has offered microscopy short courses in the NCSU summer biotechnology series and at Woods Hole. She is also a committee member of the N.C. State Phytotron, the Southeastern Plant Environment Facility available to scientists requiring controlled environment facilities for their research.

In 1990, she was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and she was recently elected to serve on the AAAS biological sciences council. She holds professional memberships in the American Society for Cell Biology (where she was chair of Women in Cell Biology), American Women in Science, American Society for Plant Biology, International Society for Plant Molecular Biology, Electron Microscopial Society of America and the American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology.

This latter membership is in accordance with the collaboration of her lab with NSCORT, the NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training in Gravitational Biology at N.C. State. There she and her associates have researched how plants sense gravity.

It’s all the iceberg tip of a rich curriculum vita.

Now as her new Faculty Senate obligations draw closer, Allen is readjusting her sights. “I have been proactive all my life, and I feel that it is important to do service that will help the university as a whole. I am at a stage in my career where I feel I should take on some of these responsibilities. I am hoping I have gained some wisdom in my many years as a university professor.”
In the summer before becoming chair-elect, she was typically busy in Woods Hole, at work on a research paper and reading through 60 fellowship proposals for the AAAS.
She also was in the throes of preparing for the Aug. 7 wedding of her youngest daughter, Barbara Allen, in Woods Hole. In that endeavor, Allen got to indulge one of her passions, flower arrangement.

Allen loves flowers and gardening “because I grew up in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Copenhagen. The observatory in which we lived was in the garden, and I had free run of the gardens and greenhouses my entire childhood.” She regularly makes the on-stage floral arrangements for the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild’s concerts.
Still she has found time for what she calls “my greatest pleasures”: going out on her little Boston Whaler to the small beaches and islands at Woods Hole, checking out the algae and other wildlife, and teaching her visiting grandchildren about nature.
“You have to do it now, for you don’t know what the future holds,” said Allen. “As my wonderful colleague at Dartmouth, Hannah Croasdale, said, ‘Time is not on our side.’”

Yet time’s winged chariot is not daunting to Allen. “I will be 72 when I finish my term as Faculty Senate chair-elect,” she said, “so I am winding down my lab to concentrate on the senate and AAAS to hopefully do some good for the local and U.S. communities.”

As she approaches her time ahead, in the laboratory, the classroom and the senate, she brings with her the accomplishments of a lifetime — and a mind prepared.