May 2013

With a lot of help from my friends

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) (1), 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.

  1. 1.  Daniell, Ellen. Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Successful Women Scientists (Yale University Press).

Christine GuthrieChristine Guthrie ( is professor of biochemistry at the University of California at San Francisco and an American Cancer Society research professor of molecular genetics. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was educated at the University of Michigan (B.S. in zoology) and the University of Wisconsin (Ph.D. in genetics). The hallmark of her research is the use of genetics to understand molecular mechanisms regulating gene expression. In recognition of her pioneering use of Saccharomyces cerevisiae to understand the spliceosome, Guthrie received the 2011 ASBMB-Merck Award. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has long believed that the best science happens in a nurturing environment and received the Women in Cell Biology Senior Career Recognition Award of the American Society for Cell Biology in honor of this practice.

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