A series of graduate student conversations with leading women biologists, at the Women in Science Symposium at Cornell April 2-3.

As a woman scientist in the beginning of my career I’m always interested in the journey of more established female scientists: how their interest in science developed, how they’ve overcome challenges to be successful, and how they’ve balanced their goals of establishing a successful career with the desire to have a family. So when I had the opportunity to speak with and interview the Nobel Laureate Dr. Linda Buck during the Frontiers in the Life Sciences symposium, I was immediately intimidated but ultimately excited about speaking to someone who has obtained what many consider to be the most prestigious award in science.

What I learned, however, is that Dr. Buck is extremely approachable and an ardent proponent for increasing the representation of women in the life sciences. Additionally, she is a passionate spokeswoman for basic research and gets her motivation and drive, which led to her notable successes, from a true passion for discovery.

Dr. Linda Buck was born in Seattle, Washington where at an early age her parents instilled in her a “can-do” attitude, which she credits as a major factor in her road to success. “They taught me to think independently and to be critical of my own ideas, and they urged me to do something worthwhile with my life, to not settle for something mediocre,” says Dr. Buck. She never felt that as a woman she couldn’t achieve the things she set out to do.

Dr. Buck attended the University of Washington for her undergraduate education, during which she spent a number of years exploring different career possibilities and finally settled on immunology. Her next steps took her to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas for graduate school, where she feels her work in the Microbiology Department taught her what is really means to be a scientist. It was also during this time that she realized that her interests lay in understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying biological systems. This led her to do postdoctoral work at Columbia University to learn molecular biology techniques and ultimately to the field of olfaction and her Nobel-Prize winning research on odorant receptors (receptors responsible for detecting odorous molecules in the environment). Currently she is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and member of the Basic Sciences Division at the Fred Hutchinson Research Center and an Affiliate Professor at the University of Washington. She continues to study the mechanisms underlying the sense of smell, and also researches the neural circuits underlying pheromone sensing.

Many statistics show that often women outnumber men in doctoral positions in life science programs but make up the minority of tenure track faculty positions. Do you believe there are particular challenges that affect the advancement of women in academia?

Certainly, studies show that there are differences for women across many fields in salaries and obtaining promotions compared to their male colleagues. Women also have to deal with challenge of choosing to have a family as well as a successful career in academia; although more and more men are also facing this challenge. However, there are other challenges that are potentially more pervasive and less easy to target because of their subconscious nature. Hiring biases and differences in mentorship are additional challenges women face that can affect not only their ability to receive tenure but also decisions on whether they are hired.

These seem like similar issues to those women faced years ago, why aren’t we seeing greater changes towards equality?

Gradually things will change. The Equal Rights Movement was instrumental in making changes for women historically and there are groups that have been working to improve conditions for women in academia. In particular, Nancy Hopkins at MIT worked diligently to investigate issues of gender biases and equity for women scientists, resulting in improvements in many universities. Of course there is still more to be done to ensure that equally qualified women are getting hired and promoted at an equal rate.

One of the major goals of this symposium was to increase the exposure of young scientists, particularly women, to pioneers in their fields. What role do you feel more established female scientists have in mentoring and supporting younger female scientists?

Having women in the lab and talking to them. Exposure is crucial.

What can we do as women to improve our situation?

We need to have role models for our young women. Giving girls exposure to powerful women, having them see what’s out there. There’s a group of professional women I learned of in Sweden that go into elementary schools, not to give lectures, but simply to expose girls to more female role models.

Would you credit your interest in science to exposure at a critical point?

Growing up I never thought I would be a scientist. I spent a lot of time exploring different options; it took a long time for me to find what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I was in college that I decided to pursue a career in the sciences. However, it was ultimately my experiences in graduate school and during my postdoctoral program that led me to my current research interests.

What advice would you give doctoral students who think all the big ideas have all been discovered?

Oh no, there are lots of things to be discovered. Choose something that fascinates you. Be courageous and don’t be afraid of doing something that's hard. If you’re invested you’ll put the time in. Joy comes with discovery. But think carefully before hand, it takes as much time to do a bad experiment as it does to do a good one. It may take longer to take the right approach but ultimately you’ll reap the greatest benefits.

How do we, as young scientists, achieve success with our research?

Approach the problem in steps: Think, Plan, Step Back. Spend lots of time initially thinking about the problem: the nitty-gritty details of the experiment. Is the approach you suggest the most appropriate? Don’t just rush straight into experiments. Also, periodically take time to step-back, stop working in the lab, and evaluate; it’s important to recognize when to give up and let go if you’re going down a dead end path. That’s the craft of science. Science is meant to explore not to prove. If you set out aiming to prove a concept, you might miss the most interesting part.

Often as young scientists we face major setbacks in our experiments or our projects that make it difficult to maintain motivation, how would you suggest we overcome this lack of driving force?

Think about what you want to be the next step. Continue searching and exploring those interests that initially brought you to the problem. Follow the process down the line and determine whether the outcomes in that line of reason would be interesting and worth pursuing. Think about the details, because they might illuminate something interesting that you didn’t anticipate.

Many times scientists are faced with the question of how their research is applicable to society. How do you feel about basic science versus applied science?

Oh I definitely have an opinion about that! Basic science gives information about how biological systems work. That knowledge gives us information to understand disease states. How can we really expect to fully understand particular diseases or potentially cure them if we have no knowledge of the biological systems they affect? After receiving the Nobel Prize, I felt part of my new responsibilities was as a spokesperson for basic research.

Speaking of the Nobel, probably many scientists in the back of their minds have thoughts of the desirability of potentially winning the Nobel. What was winning like for you?

Receiving a Nobel Prize was a complete surprise. I certainly wouldn’t encourage anyone to go into science with the goal of winning awards; go into science for the enjoyment and fascination of the work.

Dr. Buck, you have obviously have a true passion for your work and have made an enormous contribution to your field. It has been a most enjoyable experience speaking with you. Thank you very much for participating in this interview.

For more on Dr. Buck’s work, see her lab website and Nobel page.

Previously in this series:

Serendipity and Science: 30 Minutes with Dr. Sharon Long

The Co-Evolution of Insects, Plants and a Career

Empirically dancing your way to the top – How Nicole Dubilier does it!

From babies to baboons: one woman’s path to success

At home underwater and on land: a conversation with Dr. Mary Power

Bacteria Talk, Plants Listen: The Discovery of Plant Immune Receptors, an Interview with Dr. Pamela Ronald