5 Questions with a Microbiologist
Your undergraduate degree is in English literature. How did you end up in the world of microbes?
In my senior year at Radcliffe College, I had fulfilled the requirements for my major and was looking for a course about something different. Somebody mentioned the course on the origins of molecular biology taught by David Dressler, who was in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department. I walked into that course naïve, not even knowing what DNA was. Dressler gave beautifully crafted lectures about the foundational experiments in the field and the scientists who carried out those experiments. He was able to convey the sense of suspense and excitement of discovery. I was mesmerized by it all.
Does your background in literature inform your work as a scientist?
I think maybe it informed my choice of PhD lab. I did my PhD with Mark Ptashne at Harvard. What appealed to me about his science was the narrative elegance of it. There are different styles of science, and as an individual scientist, you get more drawn to certain styles. For me, genetics has always been what I loved the most. I like its elegance, its indirection. Maybe I connect that with the kind of subtlety I like in literature.
What is the most pressing challenge for the field of microbiology?
The well-known challenges are antibiotic and antiviral resistance, and emerging viruses are also a huge problem. However, I think it would be a mistake to focus narrowly on those challenges. We have to allow space for curiosity-driven research or we’re going to find ourselves in a tunnel, perhaps missing something that could be transformative. To think we know what the most productive approaches are in any field of biomedicine is, I think, a mistake with potentially disastrous long-term consequences.
If you could pursue any other profession, what would it be?
It’d be something that relates to my interest in language. I’d call it a forensic philologist, a profession I don’t think exists. I’ve always been interested in the way people use language and the idiosyncrasies in how people phrase things. I had a friend who got a grant review and wondered who was responsible for writing it. I figured it out—I looked at other writings by the various people in the study section and found one whose phrasing was unmistakably the same. I joked that I should start a cottage industry in which I’d figure out the identity of authors from writing samples.
As chair of microbiology, what’s on your to-do list?
Junior faculty recruitment is something the whole department is incredibly excited about, as am I. We are recruiting in a new way for us, by inviting all our finalists for a symposium. We did this for the first time last year, and it ended up feeling like a festive occasion that reinforced a sense of community within the department.
Ekaterina Pesheva is the director of science communications and media relations in the HMS Office of Communications and External Relations.
Image: John Soares