Cecile M. Pickart, a Johns Hopkins scientist and teacher who worked to find treatments for cancer and Alzheimer's disease by studying a critical cellular protein, died Wednesday at her Tuscany-Canterbury home. She was 51.
Diagnosed with kidney cancer four years ago, she died of the disease "wrapped in the shawl that all her former students gave her last summer with their names embroidered on it," said her partner, Jennifer Rose.
A professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Dr. Pickart studied the protein ubiquitin, so named because it is found in all animal cells.
Born in Cheverly and raised in Setauket, N.Y., and in Brookeville in Montgomery County, she earned her bachelor's degree in 1976 from Furman University, where she graduated summa cum laude and was class co-valedictorian. She supported herself in college as a classical bass player but earned her degree in biochemistry.
She earned her doctorate in biochemistry from Brandeis University in 1982. Family members recalled the day she defended her dissertation.
"Cecile had set up this elaborate maze of pull-down bulletin boards, each filled with complex equations, and she choreographed her defense into biochemistry's equivalent of performance art," said her brother, George Pickart, who lives in Lothian.
She later pursued postdoctoral studies at the Institute for Cancer Research in Philadelphia, and worked with Irwin Rose, who shared a Nobel Prize with two others in 2004.
"Whether we were dealing with a health issue, an ethical dilemma, a financial struggle, Cecile was not only there for us but knew instinctively how to help us find the way safely home - with practical advice, compassion, perfect generosity," her brother said.
For a decade, Dr. Pickart served on the faculty of the School of Medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo and in 1995, she joined the Bloomberg School of Public Health as a professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology.
"She was a stellar teacher," said Dr. Roger McMacken, the department chairman. "She was extremely well-organized and an exceptional scientist. Her research was groundbreaking. She made discoveries that may lead to treatments and therapies."
A Johns Hopkins spokesman said that throughout her career, Dr. Pickart's research focused on the role of ubiquitin, an essential protein involved in cellular processes, including the repair of DNA.
He said that ubiquitin searches the body for damaged or misshapen proteins and signals them for destruction. The goal in understanding how ubiquitin works is to assist in the development of drugs for prevention or treatment of diseases, including cancer, Parkinson's, Huntington's and Alzheimer's.
Fellow scientists trusted that Dr. Pickart would keep a confidence.
"I think fellow scientists shared their secrets with Cecile because not only did she possess a high level of integrity but she also had such a quick and incisive intellect," said a former student, Roseanne M. Hofmann of Bridgeport, Pa. "Colleagues wanted to hear her insights about their data. Cecile's strong integrity cascaded into everything that she did."
"Her students, both past and present, were a source of joy and pride to her. One of the hardest things for Cecile about her illness was her concern about the effect on her students," Ms. Rose said. "She did not know if it was right to keep taking students or how much to share about the seriousness of her situation. When she last took new students into her lab, she debated whether or not this was right, even if she told them."
In her free time, Dr. Pickart read 19th- and 20th-century British and American fiction and visited spots in England frequented by novelist Jane Austen and her characters. She also attended concerts.
Funeral services will held at 2 p.m. today at the Bunting-Meyerhoff Interfaith and Community Services Center, 3400 N. Charles St.
In addition to her partner and brother, survivors include her parents, Stanley and Louise Pickart of Peace Dale, R.I.; two sisters, Maureen Pickart McClure of Lafayette, Ind., and Andrea Pickart of Arcadia, Calif.; three other brothers, Robert Pickart of Falmouth, Mass., David Pickart of Cumberland, R.I., and Christopher Pickart of Knoxville, Tenn.; and nieces and nephews.