March 2011

An interview with Maggie Werner-Washburne

Maggie Werner-Washburne, a regents’ professor at the University of New Mexico, talks about her research and interests and shares some of the challenges she's faced in her scientific development.


ASBMB: Tell us about your current career position.
Werner-Washburne: I am a regents’ professor at the University of New Mexico and I run a laboratory working on the differentiation of quiescent and non-quiescent cells in yeast stationary phase cultures. We do genomics and my lab has moved from classical molecular biology and genetics to microarray analysis to proteomic analysis, including lots of computer sciences, statistics, technology development and flow cytometry, as well as collaborations with engineers, mathematicians and other scientists. I also am co-PI of FlyBase, one of the first model organism databases, as well as Vector Base, which deals with data based on the genome sequencing of mosquitoes, lice and other disease vectors. These databases are critical for genomics research on these and related organisms and, with them, we have established a UNM annotation center that provides an opportunity for minority Ph.D.s to work in large, international teams towards understanding genome and gene structure and expression. I am also PI of UNM IMSD – a very successful undergraduate and graduate program aimed at diversifying Ph.D.s in the U.S. We’ve produced about 20 minority Ph.D.s in the past six years and have students working on advanced degrees at UNM and all over the U.S. I also teach genomics and I focus on helping students learn how to bring their imaginations to learning science and discovery.

ASBMB: What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
Werner-Washburne: Oh boy, do you have an evening? My undergraduate degree was in English from Stanford University. I went to Stanford because they called it the farm and I was from Iowa. Also, my family’s cook in Mexico had once been Leland Stanford’s cook, so I mistakenly thought I had some family ties to Stanford. There are lots of stories here. After Stanford, I went to Mexico, where I found my heart, realized that science and the study of plants was something that called to me, and discovered that I wasn’t the only person whose grandmother talked with angels or aunts wrote to invisible doctors. The rest of the story is very long and involves Central and South America, Alaska, Minnesota, Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand, Hawaii again, Wisconsin and New Mexico. My mother told me to have an interesting life – so I have tried to do that. If you find me sometime, maybe I can share some of the stories from these places – and the people who were so kind and welcoming to me everywhere. After a Ph.D and postdoc at Wisconsin, I wanted to work in a research I institution with a high Hispanic enrollment, since I’d grown up in a mixed Mexican/Anglo environment in Iowa. I had just gotten a Nature paper showing that HSP70 genes were chaperones, so I could have gone many places - but UNM fit the bill. To my surprise, not all the Hispanics welcomed me (New Mexico is very complex) – but I soon fell in love with the students, with the cultures and with the New Mexican sky. I tell my students that I cannot leave now because my veins have become acequias. I recently had my mitochondrial DNA tested (my maternal line) and found out that it is indigenous – and the route my DNA has taken is the route I took after getting my English degree and living out of a backpack for five years. It is clear to me now that my life was supposed to take the path it took – but back when I started, I honestly had no idea where this was going.

Image courtesy of Luidger
"I saw the statue of Coatlique..she was so startling to me. I spent most of a day just sitting by her thinking of the paradoxes of a mother having a skirt of snakes and a necklace of skulls." - Maggie Werner-Washburne

ASBMB: How did you first become interested in science? 
Werner-Washburne: I was pre-med at Stanford for the first year, but I was insecure and couldn’t take all the competition. When I went to my chemistry professor to ask for help, he told me that I should quit school, get married and cook for my husband. So, I switched to English. After Stanford, I went to Mexico and at the Museum of Anthropology I saw the statue of Coatlique (I keep a picture in my office). She was so startling to me. I spent most of a day just sitting by her thinking of the paradoxes of a mother having a skirt of snakes and a necklace of skulls. Later, in Oaxaca, where I feel I was born as a scientist, I saw the curanderas selling plants and other medicinal materials. I began to realize that science was part of what our cutures did, and that this knowledge was not part of the education I had received. I realized that there was a world there that I could study and that was interesting to me. There are other stories and events – again, maybe we can find an evening sometime.

ASBMB: Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path?  If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
Werner-Washburne: It may sound strange, but I have come to be grateful for and sometimes even love failures – because you don’t learn from your successes as much as you learn from when you are not successful. I didn’t used to love failures. I used to take from these events that I was a failure – now I see they are actually great opportunities. And, amazingly, the more we embrace and reflect on and learn from our failures, the harder it becomes to fail! I don’t mean to cover up and say this really isn’t a failure – I mean digging deep and learning something from failing. When I graduated from Stanford, with a 3.2 GPA, I thought I was a failure. I had no faith in myself. I had $300, so I went to Mexico and took the train as far south as I could go. That walkabout opened my entire life to me. I’ve been lucky enough to live this long, so I’ve had lots of what you might call failures. But, lately, when things seem to be going wrong, I go into deep thought and I remember how grateful I am for my family, friends, colleagues, students, music, pets, our farm and the mystery of what door will open next.  

ASBMB: What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
Werner-Washburne: Well, I have several things I tell my students and we work on these – 1) know your heart. You can’t do this if it is not what is in your heart – and knowing what your heart is telling you in this time of such great distraction is very hard. Try to be quiet and listen. It’s your best compass. 2) Look at everything as a blessing or an opportunity. This is where loving your faults and failures comes in. As long as you are ashamed of them, they will be your weakness. You have to come to love and be grateful for them. That DUI can be what keeps you from going to graduate school – but if you dig deep, learn from it, and honor it for what it has helped you see and change in your life – it will be the reason you get into graduate school. I tell my students these things so they will also remind me, when I forget. 3) Embrace all of  who you are – go as far down in your roots as you can because, whatever you do, it is important that you bring the depth of who you are to the table. Diversity doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t saying anything. Bring it to the table! Finally, remember that everyone experiences the “imposter syndrome” – that is, when they know me well, they will know I cannot do this or that. Everyone feels this, but it can be debilitating for women and minorities. Don’t tell yourself you are not capable. Don’t tell yourself you are a failure. Go straight to principles 1 and 2 and find a way, in your heart, to love and honor yourself. You are an important person. You bring a lot to the world and to the table – but only if you are strong top to bottom, inside and out. Get there.

ASBMB: What are your hobbies? 
Werner-Washburne: I like riding bikes, walking and I sing and play bass in our folk band, Holy Water & Whiskey.  We have a farm up in the mountains and I could lie in bed in the morning and watch the birds and elk for a few eons. I also love hearing from former students and seeing what they are doing. I like visiting with neighbors.

ASBMB: What was the last book you read? 
Werner-Washburne: I have two books sitting on my shelf for when I get this done – "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and Isabel Allende’s "Island Beneath the Sea." Allende is a favorite writer. I hate to admit it – but I’ve been reading Louis L’Amore lately – it seems to fit when I’m sitting up in our cabin in Cuba, N.M. – which was a real wild west town not that long ago. I’ve also been watching and really loving old Clint Eastwood movies!

ASBMB: Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
Werner-Washburne: Elma Gonzalez and Diana Marinez are my comadres en las sciencias and heroines. I think that their fame will grow in retirement. Whenever I am perplexed, these two come to the rescue. Libba Cotton and Alberta Hunter are my musical heroines. I spent a few days with Libba Cotton one time. Both of these women sang when they were younger, had careers and sang even better in old age, when they brought so much life experience to their music. Many of my heroes are family members – people I knew very well who showed so much heart, courage, and intelligence. Alice and Bruce King, N.M. politicians who are both gone, were what politicians and community members should be. The Democrats who voted for health care reform were heroes. For many of them, it may have meant the end of their careers – but they did the right thing for our country. Finally, my foster brother Bobby Delgado – who died in his early 20s has always been a motivating force in my life. Bobby got his GED and what he thought was a good job painting the inside of box cars. One night while I was at Stanford, Mom called to tell me that Bobby had died. His autopsy showed that his liver was the same color as the paint he was spraying – the company had not given him a respirator or any kind of protective devices. I promised Bobby that I would do what I could to help educate our communities so that we would know what a good job really was and learn more about how to protect ourselves. 

Bobby would be happy to know that this year, I got UNM to establish the Luminaria awards, for anyone at UNM who brings light to where they are. Our janitors won the first award – it was the first time that janitors had won an award here. I know that our janitors (all Hispanic) are heroes. They have saved lives by providing community, security and compassion for all of our students who are here late at night. They do a hard job with a lot of joy, respect for their responsibilities and heart. 

ASBMB: What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
Werner-Washburne: I think that I, like many minorities, really love science. We have to because as you move up the academic ladder it is clear that the old-boy/girl networks are still very powerful. But we can create these places in our labs and classrooms where a huge range of ideas are encouraged and honored and where people of all colors and backgrounds can follow their hearts. I love yeast – these cells have taught me so much about life and given me so much – from grant money to  wonderful colleagues and students to bread and wine. I love when students have that “aha” moment and make some connection that they had not previously thought about – when they have stepped on territory never visited by humans before. I love that great science requires great creativity. That is why I believe that minorities, truth be told, have the capacity to be incredible scientists – because we dream in color, because we have songs in our hearts, and because we can imagine paths that we have never traveled.

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