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At Home with Eva Engvall

The ranch sits in a notch in the mountains that rise up above the Santa Ynez River. The area is hit by fierce winds, but it offers a spectacular view.
Joe Palca, NPR /
The ranch sits in a notch in the mountains that rise up above the Santa Ynez River. The area is hit by fierce winds, but it offers a spectacular view.

I visited Eva Engvall in April for a story on the 35th anniversary of the ELISA test. Engvall co-invented the test, and it's fair to say it revolutionized clinical medical testing.

Basically, ELISA uses antibodies to detect proteins. It has a staggering number of clinical applications. There's not a modern clinical laboratory that doesn't use the ELISA or one of its descendants.

But almost as impressive as the medical test Engvall invented is the house she lives in near Buellton, Calif.

The house sits in a notch in the mountains that rise up above the Santa Ynez River. Engvall says her husband, cancer researcher Erkki Ruoslahti, fell in love with the area a few years ago, and decided to buy some property there. He settled on an 1,100-acre ranch with an interesting history.

"The house was built by a Hollywood stuntman who married into money," says Engvall. "His son was the one who lived here most of his life."

The son's name is Slick Gardner. Engvall says when Gardner was a young man, he drove jet cars in the Nevada desert.

Evidently, says Engvall, Gardner had been living beyond his means, and in recent years, creditors were threatening to take away his ranch. So Gardner had a bold idea.

"He bought 700 wild horses from some old Indians in Nevada, transported them here, and let them out," says Engvall. "He probably was thinking the property could be some sort of animal reserve, and that would allow him to retain it. But then, he was accused of animal cruelty, because he could not afford to feed the horses," she says.

Ultimately, the county sold the animals, and Gardner was forced to sell the land.

Engvall said she would never have been able to afford the place herself -- she never held a patent on ELISA, and never got rich from her invention -- but her husband had made money in the biotech world, so they could afford to relieve Gardner of his property.

The house itself is enormous. There's a huge open space in the middle where there used to be a fountain. The interior is divided into rooms by adobe walls, but the walls are only about 10 feet high, and the wooden roof is 20 feet higher still.

Because it sits in a notch between two peaks, the winds can be intense. One night, Engvall says she slept on the floor in the middle of the house, fearing that the wind would break the window in her bedroom.

Outside, the front porch offers a spectacular view of the Santa Ynez valley. It's a wine region made famous by the move, Sideways.

"Our nearest neighbor has a winery," says Engvall. "It's called the Shoestring winery."

Engvall and Ruoslahti are in the process of turning the house into something more congenial to their tastes. In addition to removing the fountain in the middle of the house, they've hung modern art on the interior adobe walls, removed some of the enormous, wrought-iron chandeliers that adorned every room in the house, and hauled away an ancient carriage Slick Gardner left behind.

Both Engvall and Ruoslahti have faculty positions at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla. But Ruoslahti is so smitten with the ranch that he's planning to open a branch of the Burnham Institute in nearby Santa Barbara. Given the view from his home office window, it's hard to blame him for wanting to stick around.

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Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.