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5 Things About Me: Biologist Maggie Werner-Washburne

Maggie Werner-Washburne is a professor of biology at the University of New Mexico, where she studies yeast molecular genetics. (Photo: From Maggie Werner-Washburne)

Maggie Werner-Washburne, Ph.D.
AAAS Fellow
Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) President
Regents' Professor of Biology
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM

Background: Maggie Werner-Washburne is a professor of biology at the University of New Mexico, where she studies yeast molecular genetics. She is also the current president of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).

Question 1: Share a story from your past that led to your choosing your field of work.
Answer: It wasn't clear I would become a scientist. I started as a biology major at Stanford where I went because one, they called it the Farm and I was from Iowa, and two, my grandparents' cook in Mexico once worked for Leland Stanford so I naively thought we had family connections. Thanks to a chemistry professor there who encouraged me to drop out and get married after getting a C on a test, I decided to be an English major. I was very lucky to have as my last class "Yeats, Elliot, and Neruda", where Pablo Neruda's metaphors opened up a completely new world to me. I embarked on a year and a half journey after graduation to meet [Neruda]. I went to Mexico (where my mother was from) and Central and South America. During this trip, I gradually became aware of and then fascinated with the interactions between traditional cultures and the plants they used. I didn't meet Pablo Neruda but this was the beginning of my life's journey in science and culture. From Colombia I flew and hitchhiked and took a boat to Alaska. In the bush in Alaska (where I lived from February to July that year), we ran out of supplies and lived on what we could hunt and gather for a few months. One day I was walking through the forest when I realized that if it weren't for the evolution of photosynthesis, everything we know other than rocks and microbes would not exist. I couldn't understand why there were no churches to photosynthesis! It took surviving more adventures and a few more years to get into graduate school, but my realization of the importance of photosynthesis locked me into this path.
Question 2: What are you most proud of in your work?
Answer: I believe my major strengths as a researcher have been my creativity, interest in people and ability to contribute to teams. As a postdoc, I was part of the team that discovered that a group of heat shock proteins were chaperone proteins. In New Mexico, I found new cell types in yeast (quiescent and nonquiescent cells). In genomics, I have been able to work with simply amazing people from Harvard to Sandia Labs, Canada, University of New Mexico and elsewhere. I've been able to work on software and high-throughput flow cytometry, and contribute to technology that led to an RD100 award.

But I think my most lasting and important contribution will be the hundreds of students to whose careers I have contributed. I love helping students develop their creativity, motivation and inspiration by listening to their own hearts and minds. As they develop their own narratives as scientists or engineers, it propels them steadily forward and allows them to hold onto the fundamentals of who they are. I hope to train leaders and team players. We have some very difficult challenges to face, and Scott Page from the University of Michigan has made a good argument that solving hard problems is best done by diverse teams with different toolkits. My joy has been to help students from New Mexico to explore who they are and understand the toolkits they bring to the table so they are ready to be part of high-level teams.  

Question 3: Tell us why you chose your particular field of study, why did it grab your interest and fuel your curiosity?
Answer: I was working on yeast for my postdoc with Bettie Craig, but fearful of coming to New Mexico because big labs were going to work on HSP70s as chaperones. I closed my eyes and imagined a day in the life of a yeast cell. I realized that most of the time I wasn't dividing, and that I didn't know where my food was coming from. Most people at that time thought that cells in stationary phase cultures were dead or that yeast didn't have a quiescent phase because when they looked at these cultures they saw budding cells. The more I thought about this, I realized that the stationary phase might be the most important, stressful time for yeast and any unicellular organisms and that there were enormous selective pressures on the whole species during these times—so there had to be some "plan" for survival. What we found was just incredible. I found out later that closing your eyes and using your imagination to come up with novel insights was not a novel approach: Albert Einstein discovered relativity by imagining himself riding on a particle of light. I suggest all students try it.
Question 4: Have you read a book you are dying to tell your peers about? Give us a brief summary and why you love it.
Answer: I've read a lot about running nonprofits and I love the Harvard Business Review, but the most disruptive book I've read in the past couple of years is "Thinking, Fast and Slow," by Daniel Kahneman. He is a cognitive psychologist who got the Nobel Prize in Engineering for showing how people make decisions that seem contrary to what you might expect. I started that book thinking that it couldn't possibly apply to me, with all the education, etc., that I'd had. I was amazed to experience exactly what he was pointing out! Kahneman's approach has really changed the way I look at how we communicate and make decisions, and has gotten me very interested in a completely new area of research—what I call Chronic, Hard Problems—like traffic in cities, the polarization in our country, education and diversity. They have some interesting properties and our responses and our initial approaches are predictable. The real creativity and fun comes in finding the actual solutions, which may not be apparent at first. It's a great challenge and I love having the chance to forge into this new area of work.
Question 5: Tell us about a hobby or passion outside of work.
Answer: I have worked to help diversify the sciences for many years and I am the current president of SACNAS. It is a tremendous organization that brings everyone together. Contrary to many people's beliefs, minorities have not managed to move into the ranks of STEM faculty, university administrations or the upper levels of corporations or government. The flatness of the lines is really amazing and [persists] despite years of doing things that seemed so logical and sure to be effective.  Every school has some statement about how great diversity is and it is a compelling idea, but almost no one has really experienced what is possible because we haven't really thought about how to develop these kinds of deep-thinking, successful and diverse teams in the boardroom or the classroom. This is a Chronic, Hard Problem that I hope to help unravel.
I have also played music most of my life. There was a moment when I had to decide between music and graduate school. I was in two bands in Hawaii, one in Wisconsin, and didn't play for about 20 years while the kids grew up. My husband and brother-in-law and I have been playing together for the past 10 years in a group named "Holy Water & Whiskey." At my age, I need a balance in all things. Music is an important part of life.