Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Susan Golden

At the Right Place, At the Right Time

By Lily Huang | SQ Staff Writer | SQ Online (2013-14)

Timing is everything to a circadian biologist. As a Distinguished Professor of Molecular Biology and co-director of the Center for Chronobiology at UC San Diego, Dr. Susan Golden enjoys capturing the interest of her general biology (BILD 1) students. Although biology was not her initial interest, Dr. Golden’s timing was perfect to begin her lifelong career in biology.

As a child, Dr. Golden had not thought about going into research. “It wasn’t on my radar to do anything exceptional,” she said. She spent her childhood days in Arkansas. The early public education she received was strong in English, with a lesser focus on biology.

“I went to college expecting to be a writer,” Dr. Golden said. On a full ride scholarship to a small, public liberal arts school, the Mississippi University for Women (MUW), Dr. Golden planned to major in journalism. “My vision for journalism was high-end photojournalism for places like Life magazine or National Geographic,” she said.

Realizing that a career in journalism would probably be much less interesting than her vision of being a photojournalist, Dr. Golden decided to change her major to a B.A. in Biology. “My undergraduate biology class was engaging, so I decided to change majors,” Dr. Golden said.

“I was a determined, no nonsense, and ambitious student. I ended up graduating early and was a little caught off guard of what to do next. Medical school was never the plan,” Dr. Golden said, describing her intensive undergraduate years.

Although Dr. Golden did not have any opportunities to do undergraduate research at MUW, she loved doing independent chemistry lab experiments and learned basic laboratory techniques in the process.

“This was the closest experience I had of doing undergraduate research,” Dr. Golden said. After graduation in 1978, Dr. Golden was accepted into a molecular genetics pre-doctoral training (Ph.D.) research program at the University of Missouri.

Despite her lack of undergraduate lab experience, Dr. Golden’s graduate advisors gave her great support and encouragement to keep pursuing research. Her greatest confidant and fellow graduate student soon became her husband, Dr. James Golden. “It worked out well. I had picked up a degree, a career, a husband, and a life!” Dr. Golden said.

Two years into Ph.D. training, Dr. Golden got into cyanobacteria research after she changed labs and advisors. “I wanted to do recombinant DNA,” she said. She became interested in recombinant DNA when she was doing a “current topic” summary assignment for a seminar class in her undergraduate days. “At that time, recombinant DNA was an exciting, hot, and controversial topic with biological and ethical concerns,” Dr. Golden said. A project in a cyanobacterial lab gave her the opportunity to use what were then new technologies in recombinant DNA.

She continued to do research on a cyanobacterial genetic model, Synechococcus elongatus, after completing her Ph.D. in 1983. She did additional studies of cyanobacteria in her postdoctoral research at the University of Chicago and when she joined Texas A&M University in 1986 as a Biology faculty member.

Drs. James and Susan Golden stayed at Texas A&M for 23 years until they took a leap of faith to move to San Diego in 2008. “It’s unusual to be able to move two scientists at the same time, but we brought aspects that UCSD was looking for,” Dr. Golden said. “Timing really is everything.”

Dr. Golden stands near a waterfall while on vacation in Fiji, May 2013. / Photo courtesy of Dr. Susan Golden
Dr. Golden stands near a waterfall while on vacation in Fiji, May 2013. / Photo courtesy of Dr. Susan Golden

At that time UCSD was looking for scientists who specialized in cyanobacteria in order to do more research on algae applications in biotechnology.

Dr. Golden was initially studying photosynthesis, until circadian oscillation rhythms became prominent in her research. She now studies the molecular mechanisms of the circadian clock and how this information is passed down to a cell’s progeny as well as photosynthetic processes of cyanobacteria, with the goal of mass producing biofuels.


Dr. Golden may seem busy with her scientific research but she has not forgotten her interests of youth. She enjoys a spectrum of novels. Some favorites include David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

She has also incorporated her talent for writing into writing government funding grants and editing scientific manuscripts. “You need to be a critical, strong writer in order to be an academic scientist,” Dr. Golden said.

Even though Dr. Golden is not a photojournalist for National Geographic, she manages to have her fun in the tropics by scuba diving for underwater photography. In addition to this, she is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and an advocate for a diverse and inclusive research atmosphere as the Faculty Equity Advisor for the Division of Biological Sciences.

While in Fiji, Dr. Golden spent time scuba diving in the coral reefs  and photographing underwater creatures, such as this anemone. / Photo courtesy of Dr. Susan Golden
While in Fiji, Dr. Golden spent time scuba diving in the coral reefs and photographing underwater creatures, such as this anemone. / Photo courtesy of Dr. Susan Golden

Through her travels and connections, Dr. Golden has made many meaningful relationships in her life. “One of the less appreciated aspects of being a scientist is making great and close friends all over the world,” Dr. Golden said.

Dr. Golden not only enjoys teaching classes about circadian rhythms (BIMM 116) and introductory biology (BILD1), but also loves training her lab students and seeing them grow as independent scientists. “Take advantage of research opportunities. Be thoughtful and selective about choosing research, but it’s all interesting,” Dr. Golden said, when asked for advice to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in scientific research.