March 2011

An interview with Maggie Werner-Washburne

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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