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.


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