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Women Scientist Profiles

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

For Dr. Linda Birnbaum, every day offers joy in discovery. As a toxicologist, Dr. Birnbaum studies how the environment affects our health. Since 2009, she has transformed her groundbreaking research into a groundbreaking role. Dr. Birnbaum is the first toxicologist and the first woman to lead the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program.

Following her M.S. and Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Birnbaum completed her first postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. She then completed her second postdoctoral fellowship in Utica, NY. Her third postdoctoral fellowship was with the National Toxicology Program. Before her appointment as NIEHS director, Dr. Birnbaum spent 19 years at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dr. Birnbaum has published more than 700 peer-reviewed publications and received numerous awards, including election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in 2010 and the Collegium Ramazzini.
Throughout her career, Dr. Birnbaum has mentored the next generation of scientists, personally and through her role as adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Duke University.

How has mentorship shaped your career?

I believe it’s extremely important to mentor others and to find someone to be mentored by.
When I first came to NIEHS for my postdoctoral fellowship, Dr. Skip Matthews was the principal investigator. He always told it like it was. He made me cry every day, but I always knew where I stood. He was completely fair, honest, and open, and he was full of encouragement.

On the other side, I have mentored people in my professional career from the time I was a senior graduate student. I have worked with many students in my labs over the years. They would come to me, and we would talk about work and life. Today I have just one postdoctorate fellow in my lab, but I also mentor junior staff outside the official mentor/mentee relationship.

I always encourage my students to find someone to talk to. It’s not always a matter of age or seniority. I am still being mentored by people who are younger than me.

Do you have advice for young female scientists?

Don’t be afraid to spread your wings. I completed three postdoctoral fellowships. Many people are scared to do so many, but I believe you should try different things. I wouldn’t be where I am now without those three postdocs.

Have a family when the time is right for you. I am often asked the question, “When is the best time to have kids?” I always say that there is never a good time! The time is best for you when you are ready. Don’t base it on where you are in your career or where you are in your relationship.

I completed my postdocs while having and raising three children. I was able to work part-time some of that time, and it didn’t impact my career.

Be flexible. When I mentor someone, I try to help them think outside the box. I emphasize flexibility and compromise. There is often more than one way to achieve your goal, and it isn’t always the straight and narrow.

Focus on what is most important. For me, that was my family. I would not take work home at night. Instead, I was focused during the day and didn’t allow myself to do much “visiting” at work, so I could relax in the evening with my family.

What do you enjoy about being a scientist?

It’s fun! I can’t imagine coming to work every day and not being excited. There is something new happening every day.

Research can be frustrating at times, but I’m a firm believer in Murphy’s law. You have to get to the point of giving up before it all turns around.

My motto is to have fun every day, and for me, science is fun every day.

What are the barriers to women in science?

Women in science face internal and external barriers today.

Women are socialized to please everyone and to hold the traditional role of the woman in the home. I believe that we as women struggle with and against that idea. Even if you grew up hearing from your parents that you could do anything, it is really “you can do anything in addition to the traditional role.”

Externally, the field of science is still an old boys’ club. More female scientists are rising in their careers, but the field is dominated by men. It can be difficult to develop relationships. I can’t follow them into the men’s room or sit around the bar. And not many of the other directors want to go shopping!

What do you do outside your work?

My husband and I like to visit our grandchildren. We also like to hike and travel. I love music, and I lead the service and the singing at our synagogue.

What do you think are some of the most exciting recent scientific advances in your field?

As a toxicologist, I look at the safety of things. I am especially excited about epigenetics — how the environment impacts and changes our gene expression. Current research focuses on windows of susceptibility, understanding that our exposure to the environment early in life, even in the womb, may set the trajectory for the rest of our lives. A good start lasts a lifetime.

I am also interested in the exposome. We’re beginning to understand how much we are exposed to and how it affects us, but also how our stress levels or diets affect our exposure and response to chemicals and other factors in our environment.

All of this is very exciting and spills into other fields of science.

If you werent a scientist, what other job would you have?

I think I would have gone to medical school to be a pediatrician, or perhaps I would be an archaeologist. I have loved science since I was a kid. I was good at it, and I liked being one of only a few girls in my class. I also hated writing, but I learned that it is an acquired skill that I would need. Even in science, you have to write essays!

I also like people, so something people-centered, like counseling, would also appeal to me.

This page last updated: January 12, 2016

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