Derailed But Undeterred

With a lot of help
from my friends

Christine Guthrie
By Christine Guthrie
May 1, 2013

I originally had no intention of ever becoming a principal investigator. I just wanted to do my science and be left alone. Besides, I had no idea how one could as a woman; certainly there were few role models. But my boyfriend had different ideas: The way he saw it, I should get a job and support us, preferably somewhere on the West Coast.

As things turned out, I received an offer to become an assistant professor in the biochemistry and biophysics department at the University of California at San Francisco. At the time, UCSF was a little-known school, commonly referred to as the Medical Center. (Indeed, until her death, my mother maintained that I was a professor at UC-Berkeley.)

I arrived in San Francisco in the late summer of 1973 a nervous wreck. The department consisted of six other faculty, all male. They were very friendly and supportive (if a bit bemused to have a female in their midst). It was the postdocs who scared me: The women were desperate to have a Role Model and made clear their high expectations of me to give them advice, yet all I could serve up was my own insecurity.

It was slow-going setting up my lab, I received a negative midcareer review, and tragedy struck when my trusted mentor, Gordon Tomkins, died prematurely. I fell into a deep, clinical depression and was hospitalized for six long weeks. Remarkably, when my colleagues came to visit me, they each said, “I know exactly how you feel; this is a really hard job.” This was the first I had heard — or ever imagined — that anyone else was also feeling challenged, and the validation had an enormous impact.

Through a lucky series of connections, I became involved with a group therapy program whose belief was that emotional support and problem-solving skills were key ingredients to survival in a competitive environment. With the encouragement of the professionals leading this program, a group of friends and colleagues from various walks of academia initiated a leaderless group, in which we met to exchange experiences and offer advice in dealing with our usually shared problems. Thanks to this group, I ultimately was able to be granted tenure and to build a strong and nurturing lab environment. Now, some 35 years later, we still meet regularly every other Thursday (as Ellen Daniell suggests in her book of that name), and I am happy to take this opportunity to spread the word about this empowering strategy and encourage you to consider it to enrich your own lives.

Christine Guthrie
Christine Guthrie

Christine Guthrie is professor of biochemistry at the University of California, San Francisco and an American Cancer Society research professor of molecular genetics.

Related articles

Entropy happens
Thomas E. Schindler
Just a kid from the farm
F. Peter Guengerich
My spouse and the mouse
Harvey J. Armbrecht

Join the ASBMB Today mailing list

Sign up to get updates on articles, interviews and events.

Latest in Opinions

Opinions highlights or most popular articles

Learning to love assessment
Education

Learning to love assessment

July 28, 2021

“As every scientist knows, there is no point in doing an experiment if you don’t have a way to assess the result. So assessment is a crucial step in teaching and learning.”

I’m fully vaccinated but feel sick – should I get tested for COVID-19?
News

I’m fully vaccinated but feel sick – should I get tested for COVID-19?

July 25, 2021

It’s impossible to know whether a vaccinated person is fully protected or could still develop a mild case if exposed to the coronavirus.

5 ways to use hip-hop in the classroom to build better understanding of science
Education

5 ways to use hip-hop in the classroom to build better understanding of science

July 24, 2021

Teachers often don’t know how to make science relevant, and many students of color fail to develop a science identity.

What to ask during your faculty interview
Professional Development

What to ask during your faculty interview

July 21, 2021

“Going into your interview armed with good questions not only will help you gather intel to help you make the best decision for your career but also will help you stand above the competition.”

The STEM Academy: A necessary remedy to med school tunnel vision
Reimagining

The STEM Academy: A necessary remedy to med school tunnel vision

July 13, 2021

A one-week camp at the University of South Florida forged community as it introduced new students to the possibilities of a career in scientific research.

Merging biochemical and analytical training
Reimagining

Merging biochemical and analytical training

July 8, 2021

“(T)he pandemic revealed that while it is critical for us to specialize and have depth of knowledge in some domains, it is also essential that we cultivate some breadth in our skill set.”