Alexandra Newton

BSc, Chemistry and BA, French,  SFU, 1980

PhD, Chemistry, Stanford University, 1986

Professor of Pharmacology, University of California, San Diego



Alexandra Newton was born in Cape Town, South Africa, where her father was a Professor of Classics at the University of Cape Town.  He was recruited as a founding faculty of SFU's Department of Modern Languages and the family moved to Vancouver in the middle of a very snowy winter in 1964.  Professor Newton specialized in the Greek language and every 2 or 3 years, the family would spend a year in Greece for him to conduct field work on Greek dialects.  One year, he spent his research leave in Aix-en-Provence, and Alexandra and her brother attended the LycĂ©e Mignet (accounting for her double major in French literature).  Upon their return from France, she entered SFU under the Early Entrance policy.  Despite her interest in languages (she speaks Greek, French, and German), her passion for science took hold at SFU.  After graduating with a double major in Biochemistry and French Literature, she moved to Stanford, where she obtained her PhD in Chemistry (1986).  Following 2 years of postdoctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in the lab of renowned biochemist Daniel E. Koshland, Jr, she moved to Indiana University (1988-1995), becoming the first woman to be tenured in the Department of Chemistry.  In 1995 she moved to the Department of Pharmacology at the University of California, San Diego, where she teaches in the medical and graduate school and runs a research lab examining the molecular mechanisms of cancer.  She has two children, Sophie, a ballerina, and Nicolas, interested in mechanical engineering.


Why did you choose to go to SFU?   

Because my father was a professor at SFU, the campus played a prominent role in my upbringing.  It was a great university and I never considered going anywhere else.

Where did you spend the most amount of time on campus?

In the beginning, I spent a lot of time at the cafeteria near the Department of Modern Languages speaking in French with my friends from my French literature classes; but in my final years, it would definitely be the lab.

What is your favorite memory from your time at SFU?

Dr. Sam Aronoff gave me my first exposure to hypothesis-driven primary research and it was incredible.   He would bring comfrey plants from his home, and he and I would grind them up, extract out the chlorophylls, and run the green mix over these huge columns to separate out chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b, which resolved as a brilliant teal green and lime green on a backdrop of a white resin.   

Who was your favorite SFU professor and why?

Dr. Colin Jones taught me first year chemistry - I loved the class and immediately switched my major to chemistry (later refined to biochemistry).

How has your SFU degree impacted your career? 

My undergraduate degree in biochemistry set the foundation for my career in biomedical research.  I received an outstanding education at SFU, from enthusiastic, dedicated, and knowledgeable professors - notably Dr. Bill Richards, who taught me everything I ever needed to know about metabolism and ATP, the high energy currency of the cell, Dr. Sam Aronoff, who fueled my passion for research and taught me about the scientific method, and Dr. Bob Cushley, who taught me biophysical chemistry and directed me to Stanford for my PhD.    

What is your favorite SFU snow story?

I've lived in San Diego too long to be able to remember snow!  But I do remember my dad telling stories of the glass roof of the academic quadrangle collapsing from a record snowfall shortly after we moved to Vancouver in the 1960s.

If you could give advice to students today, what would you tell them?

Follow your passion.

What is the one thing about SFU that must not change?

The great professors.