Women in Microbiology.

I am not a frequent reader or reviewer of non-fiction. For more regular and more insightful reviews of popular science books, follow the excellent Read More Science blog and Twitter account by Sarah Olson, champion of scientific literacy.

I am an avid reader and a professional scientist, but I very rarely read non-fiction in my free time. I prefer to spend my evenings, weekends, and the daily commute with novels and short story collections. And for some reason, I’ve always had a particularly strong aversion to reading biography, including biographies of people I genuinely admire. The only biographies I really remember reading and enjoying are Bossypants by my hero Tina Fey and We Need to Talk About Alan by my other hero, Alan Partridge.

“The human brain comprises 70% water, which means it’s a similar consistency to tofu. Picture that for a second – a blob of tofu the size and shape of a brain.” –That’s Alan, bringing the kind of insight you just won’t find in many ‘proper’ science books.

Having said that, to expand my horizons I’m now making a concerted effort to read more non-fiction, and particularly to read more popular science books. This is partly inspired by my own tentative attempts at writing popular science, but also by a desire to read more diverse accounts of life in science, to be better able to discuss matters of representation with my students.

Women in Microbiology

I recently completed Women in Microbiology, published by the American Society for Microbiology and edited by Rachel J Whitaker and Hazel A Barton. This is a collection of 34 short biographies of women who have worked within diverse fields of microbiological science over the past 100+ years, each pioneers in their own way. The essays are written by colleagues, friends, fans, and former students.

The microbiology I read for my work tends to lie within a very strict niche, so I had prior knowledge of very few of the women featured in this collection. As I research carbohydrate metabolism by Bacteroidetes bacteria, I was naturally most well acquainted with the work of Abigail A Salyers, the mother of microbiome research (Chapter 27). But I learned a lot from this book about Abigail the person, and all of the other amazing, inspirational women featured. Below is a short list of my favourite insights from Women in Microbiology, a collection I cannot recommend highly enough.

Sallie “Penny” Chisholm writes fun science books for young children

Professor Penny Chisholm researches and teaches on ecology and microbial oceanography at MIT’s Civil & Environmental Engineering department. She is a highly decorated scientist, and she has a passion for opening up scientific investigation to a wide audience. On her lab website, she shares detailed protocols on how to work with tricky Prochlorococcus marine cyanobacteria. But she also is the co-author of a series of children’s books about photosynthesis on land and in the oceans, and about how important the process of harvesting light energy is for all kinds of life on earth. The Sunlight Series, published between 2008 and 2017, is co-written by Penny Chisholm and Molly Bang, who has won several awards for her writing and illustrations.

Everyone has always had imposter syndrome: Diana Downs shows how to fight through it

Professor Diana Downs of the UGA Department of Microbiology studies the interconnectedness of microbial metabolic pathways, work that has implications for metabolic stress and fitness, and which encompasses all aspects of classical microbiology and cutting-edge bioinformatics. Not an easy topic to understand, let alone to master as Diana has. And yet, at the beginning of her career, Diana experienced many of the same doubts that myself and my academic friends are used to feeling. As a student, she made some highly novel observations about Salmonella induction and – because she was new to research – she assumed she must have made a mistake, mis-interpreted her data, gotten the wrong end of the stick. I had an exactly similar experience during my PhD; when a mutation I made to an enzyme introduced a new activity, I assumed that I had contaminated my protein prep with a different enzyme. I repeated the enzyme production and characterisation protocol probably five times before I took my observations to my supervisor. He then taught me to trust in my data, a lesson that Women in Microbiology says Diana has passed to all of her mentees.

According to the book, Diana has the following catchphrase, which I love: “If you do not have time to do it right, how are you going to have time to do it again?” This is a brilliant way to make the case for using deliberate practice in the lab, and taking the time to do things right, which is a lesson many students have to learn the hard way: rushing through a long and boring protocol can easily lead to mistakes, meaning everything has to be re-done anyway. In moments of high pressure or high ambition, we can be our own worst enemies if we try to hurry.

“I always stepped into the only suitable opening I could see on my horizon.” The inevitable success of Alice Catherine Evans

As one academic qualification leads to another, and one project or paper leads to another, it is sometimes easy to feel that one is being pulled through life, after inadvertently setting a course in motion many years before. It might be enough that you choose a particular science subject at A-level, and your high grades carry you in to studying a similar subject at university. Then maybe a lecturer offers you a position as a PhD student, then offers you a job as a post-doc, and before you know it you are on the tenure track somewhere, still studying that same subject you were good at when you were 17. It sometimes feels like we don’t make many active choices, more that we are pushed or pulled by success and failure that is largely dictated by the universal whim. I have felt this way at times over the past few years, and I feel lucky that I was able to stick it out and that I’m currently in a position that I enjoy, and where I feel I am more in control of my professional life.

I was quite deeply moved by the account in Women in Microbiology of the life and work of Alice Catherine Evans, a microbiologist who worked for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 1913. She discovered the link between the bacterium Bacillus abortus and the disease Brucellosis, and she was an early advocate for pasteurisation of milk, making enormously important contributions to food health and safety. She would go on to study influenza and Streptococcal disease, leaving her mark on healthcare as well.

Although the book notes that Alice “never declined an opportunity” it seems that she was rather often carried through life and her career by her innate skills and world events, rather than by making any specific ambitious decisions. After graduating with excellent marks from high school, Alice started to teach, because this was the only profession available to women. When she became intellectually bored she took up the offer of a free two-year course at the College of Agriculture in Cornell, and followed this with an education in Bacteriology, which was also offered tuition-free; at this point in her life, her poverty, rather than her gender, seems to have driven her to microbiology. After excelling yet again in her studies, Alice was offered a bacteriology scholarship at the University of Wisconsin (the first woman to hold one!), and so she found herself a highly educated 29 year old spinster working in bacterial research. This may have been the only path that had presented itself to Alice, but it was a path that would let her build a profoundly impactful scientific and feminist legacy.

After this, Alice returned to the USDA somewhat reluctantly, as it seemed “the only suitable opening,” and she made a big splash when the extant officials learned a lady scientist would be joining them. Alice is quoted as having said “I was on my way, where I had not wanted to go, and where I was not wanted.” Life carries us ever forwards.

Over the coming years, her many important findings on food safety, and especially her data showing that milk should be pasteurised, received a lot of pushback from male scientists and industrialists, but in a way Alice had the last laugh when World War I broke out, and most male scientists were drafted. Alice was swiftly recruited to what would become the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Over the coming years, her ideas about Brucellosis became widely accepted, leading to changes in federal law about the pasteurisation of milk and other food safety regulations. She was feted and decorated many times over the rest of her life, became a board member of several important national microbiological committees, and eventually established a study scholarship through the American Association of University Women, making her one of the earliest and most admirable female icons in the microbiological sciences. Alice believed clearly in gender equality (see the quote the end of this post), even giving lectures on how women should enter male-dominated careers, and she has been an inspiration to generations of ambitious female scientists hoping to make the kind of mark on the world that Alice did. And yet Alice herself appears to have moved very lightly through the world, always taking what felt like the only available path. She was gifted with intelligence and perseverance, and these attributes carried her an awfully long way.

Abigail Salyers, the mother of microbiome research, took her PhD in physics!

This was the chapter I was most looking forward to reading! Since the beginning of my PhD I have been investigating carbohydrate deconstruction by Bacteroidetes bacteria, often in the context of the Polysaccharide Utilisation Loci that Abigail discovered in the form of the archetypal Starch Utilisation System. Professor Abigail Salyers is considered by many to have been the mother of microbiome research – and yet at time of writing she doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry!?! Abigail was a powerhouse of microbiology, and her impact on much of modern microbiology, biochemistry, biotechnology, and biomedical science cannot be overstated. She worked in the very tricky area of anaerobic microbes, developing from scratch protocols to work with non-model microbes that she felt had been neglected for too long. In doing so, she expanded the field of microbiology itself, inspiring people to look and think beyond a few paradigmatic lab freak species. She discovered the pathways that allow our gut symbiotic bacteria to deconstruct and metabolise complex carbohydrates. She discovered mobile genetic elements that are responsible for the sharing of genes encoding carbohydrate degrading enzymes and antibiotic resistance proteins. She was one of the first to worry about the rising spread of anti-microbial resistance, and she was a fierce advocate for microbiology training, education, and public awareness. There is no doubt that she was foundational to the whole field…yet Abigail’s career began with a PhD in physics! In fact, her first academic position was as an assistant professor in physics at a college in Maryland. Just incredible.

Soil specialist Mary Firestone sent back her Truog Award when the certificate mis-gendered her

Professor Mary K Firestone is an expert in soil microbial ecology at UC Berkely’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. She had a passion for soil and for science from a very young age, and made her mark despite very limited institutional financial support by studying nitrogen and carbon cycles in the soil and rhizosphere, often using innovate new methods involving radionuclide labelling. In 1979, she was awarded the prestigious Emil Truog Soil Science Award. Touchingly, she had been nominated by her colleagues at Michigan State University where she started her career. Upon receiving the Truog award and certificate, it was noted that the dedication read “To Mary Firestone, for his excellent research in soil science”. The awards committee clearly expected that the winner would always be male! Supported by her advisor and his wife, as well as the rest of the faculty who had nominated Mary for the award in the first place, a complaint was made and a revised certificate was issued. Hopefully the certificate issuers double checked the gender of the award winner every year after this!

My favourite snippets from Women in Microbiology

Professor Michele Swanson, Department of Microbiology & Immunology at the University of Michigan’s Medical School: “You can’t be good at everything.” Take this as permission to give yourself a break!!

Professor Abigail Salyers, president of the American Society for Microbiology, mother of microbiome research, and the first woman granted tenure at the University of Illinois’s Microbiology Department: “I would work to minimise the fragmentation that has occurred within microbiology itself,…especially the rift between…environmental microbiologists and…clinical microbiologists….I believe that if we could forge these two areas into a single cohesive unit, we could become an almost unbeatable force in biology.

Professor Jane Gibson of Cornell University’s Section of Microbiology and one-time editor of the journal Applied & Environmental Microbiology: “No one cares how YOUR mind works.” Jane’s approach to work-life balance was “all work” and “all family” and by this account she sounds absolutely terrifying, but her methods were unquestionably effective.

Alice Catherine Evans, formerly of the US Department of Agriculture: “Women have proved that their mental capacity for scientific achievement is equal to that of men. [But] Women do not receive the same recognition as…men.” Plus ça change.

Professor Katrina J Edwards, formerly of  the University of Southern California: “It’s shocking….In the present day we know much, much more about space and the surface of other planetary bodies than we do about the inner space of our world.

Professor Nicole Dubillier of the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology: “I thought it would be perfect to be a postdoc forever…I never ever wanted to grow up.” #RelatableContent

Emeritus Professor Millicent Goldschmidt, formerly of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Texas: “I fell in love with the idea that as the same time we can’t live them and we can’t live without them.” I also love this awkwardly supportive quotation from Millicent’s uncle, which apparently convinced her father to allow her to go to graduate school: “Even though she’ll be a spinster*, at least she’ll be able to support herself.

*This was apparently guaranteed because, to quote her father, “No man is going to marry a woman with that much education.” Fair play.

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