Tribute to pioneering stem cell scientist Meri Firpo

Last week we lost Meri Firpo, a great scientist and dear friend in the stem cell community who touched many lives in positive ways.

Today’s post is a tribute to Meri, who passed away from breast cancer.

If you want to add a tribute please add a comment.

Meri Firpo short bio

Tenneille Ludwig, Meri Firpo, Rosario Isasi
Tenneille Ludwig, Rosario Isasi, and Meri Firpo at a stem cell meeting (l-r).

Meri received her B.S. at Carroll College in Helena, Montana and got her Ph.D. at Cornell.

She was a pioneering stem cell biologist. She derived some of the earliest human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines and knew the science inside and out. During the early days of  hESC research she was an assistant professor at UCSF. Meri eventually moved to University of Minnesota as an assistant professor in 2005, where she continued ground-breaking work. She had many important publications.

Meri also trained a vast number of other biologists, perhaps scores of people. She also communicated in important ways with the public including going on Science Friday on NPR.

Last week Meri passed away from aggressive breast cancer that had spread to the lung.

Here are some tributes to her as a one of a kind scientist and friend.

Tribute to Meri from Tenneille Ludwig

I met Meri over a cocktail at a scientific conference – where all good long-term collaborations begin.  I was working with Dr. James Thomson at the time, and he introduced us remarking on Meri’s work deriving some of the first human embryonic stem cell lines and the meticulousness in her culture work.  She was bold and confident, sharp and quick, had a great sense of humor, spoke sarcasm as a second language, and had no hesitation in giving Jamie a hard time. I liked her immediately.  We were instantly fast friends, and that closeness lasted nearly two decades.

We worked together on both the ISCI and ISCBI initiatives, as well as other projects, and I was always impressed with Meri’s work ethic, and her dedication to just getting it right.  She understood how science should be done, and expected that level of effort from herself, her team and her collaborators.  She was the very first person I trusted with the unpublished TeSR media formulations.  I sent her media to test in her laboratory in Minnesota because I knew that she was the ultimate test – if Meri said it worked, it worked.  Through the years she became my go-to for punting around the hard scientific questions.  She was always unselfish in her advice, honest and matter-of-fact, even when her opinion wasn’t favorable.  Some might see her style as harsh, but I always appreciated that approach – love it or hate it, you knew where you stood.

The two things I admire most in an individual are transparency and integrity, and Meri had both in spades.  In both personal and professional matters, she never hesitated to give her opinion and to tell the truth, even hard truths, but always with your best interests at heart.  She was like the perfect crème brulee – hard and occasionally bitter on the shell, but it didn’t take much effort to crack open to reveal that she was mostly all softness and sweetness.  She would do anything for a friend, never arrived as a guest without bringing the most thoughtful hostess gifts (even after years of visits), and always checked in when she knew you needed it.

Her science was outstanding.  Her contributions impacted the field from the very beginning.  Through training courses at The Jax she essentially trained the first generation of pluripotent stem cell researchers who then went on to train their own laboratories.  She taught proper stem cell technique literally around the world, leading courses in the US and in China and places in between as well as in her own lab.  She worked primarily in diabetes research for the bulk of her career, and for the last several years worked to advance the science related to cultured food products.  Always on the tip of the spear, and always doing well grounded research.  Her personal scientific contribution will certainly be missed, but her body of work is the foundation for forward progress in several arenas, and the students and investigators she has trained continue on, allowing her impact to be felt in this scientific community for generations.

And for those of us privileged enough to call her friend, the mark she has left on all of us continues as well.  I will forever see her in every greyhound, every ocean, and every after-conference cocktail with the science girlies.  She is a bright light that has left us too soon.  My condolences to all who knew and loved her.

Tribute from Jeremy Cook

An unfathomable loss, since Meri’s special and one of a kind! Here’s to the privilege of friendship with such a wonderful, intelligent, witty, warm, and caring person. I so admired her grounded personality and relentless determination to make a difference. Passionately dedicated to her science, and despite her accomplishments, she wouldn’t have contemplated the significant influence that she had. Year after year at Bar Harbor (and other round the world gatherings), with great admiration, I watched, listened, and learned about the power of individuality and good rational science. How lucky I am to have known Meri! A forever friend!

Paul’s tribute to Meri

When I first started my own lab in 2006 here at UC Davis School of Medicine I knew that I wanted to grow human embryonic stem cells (hESC) and make mouse or human iPS cells, but I didn’t have experience with those myself yet. Somehow I got connected with an assistant professor at University of Minnesota named Meri Firpo. I knew how to grow mouse ESCs but I understood that human ones were much more difficult to work with than mouse.

Meri was instrumental in my lab getting hESC culture up and running. She even invited my lab manager out to U of M to learn about hESCs. Meri was so friendly, helpful, and had a unique sense of humor. I also found myself visiting her in Minnesota.

We became friends right away. Over the coming years we emailed and talked a lot on the phone about stem cells as well as life in science more generally. Academia is a big challenge so Meri and I tried to be there for each other through the ups and downs. She helped me on that level too. Her no-B.S. attitude combined with that wonderful sense of humor was so refreshing.

Over the years going to stem cell meetings and just generally bumping into various people I also heard other stories about how much Meri had helped many people.

She was truly a generous spirit and brought out the best in others. She’s going to be missed terribly.

6 thoughts on “Tribute to pioneering stem cell scientist Meri Firpo”

  1. Michele Firpo-Cappiello

    Hello,
    Thank you all for your thoughtful words about Meri. She was my sister and I admired her in so many ways. Meri was tough, as you all point out, but nothing was better than laughing with her when we could. I love her and I will miss her forever.
    Michele Firpo-cappiello

  2. My first interaction with Meri was memorable, in that I was pretty sure she didn’t like me much. Our relationship could have just parked there, but I soon came to appreciate Meri’s style. She questioned. She pushed. She expressed opinion unapologetically. She relied on data. She credited others. She welcomed you to debate her. She acknowledged and accepted reasoned arguments. She expected those around her to do all of the above.
    She was a damn good scientist.
    I learned that where I thought I stood with her after that first interaction was wrong. She was, in her not buffed along the edges way, inviting me to go to to toe with her. So I did. And then—We laughed. We supported. We asked for and gave advice. We became good friends.
    I’m so glad to have learned her groove, I am better for it. I will miss her greatly.

  3. I met Meri at the dawn of human ESC.
    Meri was not always easy, but always worth listening to.
    She was dedicated and totally lived her science.
    She is missed

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