Perspectives Online

Nina Allen, eminent cell biologist, honored at retirement celebration

Dr. Nina Strömgren Allen, retiring professor of plant biology and director of the Plant Biology Department graduate program, founded the Cellular and Molecular Imaging Facility in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
All photos by Marc Hall

On April 6, colleagues, friends and family members gathered at JC Raulston Arboretum to honor Dr. Nina Strömgren Allen and celebrate her retirement as professor of plant biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Allen was founder of the Cellular and Molecular Imaging Facility in the CALS Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) and served for two years as chair of N.C. State University’s Faculty Senate.

Dr. Nina Allen and Dr. Johnny Wynne, CALS dean, (seated front) gather with Dr. Ken Esbenshade (left), Dr. Sylvia Blankenship and Dr. Steve Lommel to create the Dr. Nina Strömgren Allen Plant Biology Graduate Student Research Endowment.
Also during the reception, Allen participated in a signing ceremony to create the Dr. Nina Strömgren Allen Plant Biology Graduate Student Research Endowment. Allen, in cooperation with the Department of Plant Biology, is establishing the endowment in the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation Inc. to encourage and reward academic achievement by plant biology students and provide support for their imaging projects at either the CALS Cellular and Molecular Imaging Facility or the imaging centers at the North Carolina Research Institute in Kannapolis, where Allen will continue to be active post-retirement as interim co-director of light microscopy at the David H. Murdoch Research Center.

Allen came in 1995 to the College and N.C. State, where she has taught plant cell biology and video and confocal microscopy and colloquium, as well as working to improve photonic imaging and studying the cytoskeleton in particular as it relates to signal transduction in plants. Allen started the Cellular and Molecular Imaging Facility in 1996, allowing users to experience advanced light microscopic methods. The facility was used by researchers across the campus in many disciplines and allowed her to encourage interdisciplinary interactions. She also served as the director of the Plant Biology graduate program.

After the endowment signing, Allen receives congratulations from her daughter Barbara Allen Meyer-Mitchell (right), son-in-law Merlin Meyer-Mitchell and grandchildren Nina and Tristan.
Allen grew up in the Royal Observatory located in the middle of the Botanic Garden in Copenhagen, Denmark. She was born in Copenhagen, 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. Allen’s mother was accomplished in her own right as a dancer and a swimming and gymnastics teacher. 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), then directed by quantum physicist Dr. Robert Oppenheimer.

In a 2004 Perspectives profile of her, Allen said, “My father was the first astronomer at IAS and had Albert Einstein’s old office – replete with 11 portraits of Einstein. 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.”

Colleagues past and present reunite: Dr. Ernest Seneca, Dr. Margaret Daub, Dr. Nina Allen and Dr. Eric Davis celebrate Allen’s retirement from the CALS Plant Biology (formerly Botany) Department.
Allen received her 1957 biology degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She earned her 1970 master’s degree in botany and 1973 Ph.D. in plant physiology from the University of Maryland.

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 in 1970, she began work at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass., as a summer researcher, investigator, trustee, corporation member, executive committee member and visiting scientist.

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. She also held a National Science Foundation visiting professorship for women at Stanford University from 1990-1991. Allen is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and member of Phi Beta Kappa, Mortarboard and Sigma Xi.

Dr. Nina Allen (right) proudly joins her daughter Barbara Allen Meyer-Mitchell and grandson Tristan Meyer-Mitchell at her April retirement celebration in JC Raulston Arboretum’s McSwain Education Center.
At the April 6 event, Dr. Margaret Daub, head of the Plant Biology Department, led the accolades and reminiscences from friends and colleagues past and present. Parting gifts presented to Allen included an orchid and ivy arrangement in a decorative pot, in honor of her love for plants and pottery, and a basketball autographed by the late N.C. State coach Kay Yow, a friend with whom Allen collaborated in raising funds for women’s programs.

Among the speakers at Allen’s retirement celebration was her colleague Dr. Wendy Boss, William Neal Reynolds Professor of plant biology, who recalled her first experiences working with Allen in the MBL at Woods Hole.

“‘Come to Woods Hole with me,’ she told me, and if you were a cell biologist in the ’80s, there was no better place to be,” Boss said. She then turned to Allen to say, “Thank you for bringing Woods Hole to N.C. State, for bringing imaging here and bringing cell biology here – and for bringing so much style in so many ways.”

—Terri Leith

Those wishing to support the endowment in honor of Nina Allen's retirement may do so securely online at or may call Chris Wessel at 919-515-7678.