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Women In Biomedical Careers

Women Scientist Profiles

Linda B Buck, Ph.D.

Tara M. Chaplin, Ph.D.

The Women of Color (WOC) Committee of the trans-NIH Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers routinely nominates outstanding women scientists for the NIH Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series (WALS). The committee was delighted to host WALS lecturer and Nobel Laureate Linda B. Buck, Ph.D., on March 29, 2017. Dr. Buck met with the WOC committee to share her scientific journey.

Dr. Buck is a biologist best known for her research in the field of olfaction, the sense of smell. She currently works in her lab at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. There, she focuses on how mammals detect odor chemicals in the environment and how the brain translates those chemicals into odor perceptions and instinctive responses.

Training and Early Research

Dr. Buck obtained her Ph.D. from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where she studied immunology and cell surface receptors. She then did postdoctoral research at Columbia University. While using molecular biology to study the nervous system of a sea slug, she read a paper on the sense of smell that she has said changed her life. Similar to the immune system, which detects a multitude of infectious organisms, the olfactory system detects a vast array of environmental chemicals perceived as different scents. From this point in her research, she became “obsessed” with olfaction and finding receptors for odors in the nose. Her persistence finally drove her to discover the odorant receptor gene family, which is responsible for odor detection in the nose in all vertebrates. Humans have about 350 of these receptors, and mice have about 1,000.

Professional Progress

After publishing this discovery in 1991, Dr. Buck took a faculty position in the Neurobiology Department at Harvard Medical School. She spent the next 10 years there, rising through the ranks from assistant to full professor, before moving back to Seattle, her hometown. During this 10-year period, Dr. Buck's lab made a series of additional discoveries about the sense of smell. These included findings on how the nervous system organizes information from 1,000 different odor receptors, how odor receptors are used in combinations to specify the identities of different odors, and how pheromones may be detected.

Early Inspirations

Looking back, Dr. Buck says she was fortunate to have parents who told her she could do anything she wanted in life. She notes that things have improved for women in science as in other areas since she was a student. The equal rights movements in the latter half of the past century made a big difference. Due to changes in the law, graduate and professional schools were required to open their doors to more women and to hire more women faculty.

Recommendations and Final Thoughts

Although conditions have improved, there is still more improvement needed, Dr. Buck says. There is still a problem with "subconscious" bias, and, in addition, women are often less comfortable than men in promoting their accomplishments. If these shortcomings can be ameliorated, women in science will be much more visible to their younger colleagues, therefore, guiding younger women toward fulfilling their dreams of becoming the next generation of women in science. Dr. Buck says she always tells young scientists to work on a problem that fascinates them. Making new discoveries can take tremendous time and effort, but if you love the problem, it will be easier to persist through challenges and attain your goals.

This page last updated: August 8, 2017

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