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Women Scientist Profiles

Barbara Corkey, M.D.

Barbara Corkey, M.D.

Dr. Barbara Corkey is an award-winning scientist who is internationally recognized for her work in lipid metabolism, insulin secretion, and pancreatic beta cell function. Her current research focuses on metabolism—how specific cells involved in diabetes and obesity communicate. She is also studying possible influences of environmental toxins and food additives on the development of diabetes. Her research on pancreatic beta cells, which produce insulin, challenges the popular and long-standing belief that insulin resistance causes diabetes.  

Dr. Corkey is the Zoltan Kohn Professor in Medicine at Boston University. She also serves as the Department of Medicine’s Vice Chair for Research, director of the Obesity Research Center at Boston Medical Center, and as a mentor to graduate students.

Among her accolades include two of the most prestigious awards for diabetes research: The Charles Best Award from the University of Toronto and the Banting Medal for Scientific Achievement from the American Diabetes Association.

Dr. Corkey’s professional achievements are internationally recognized, and her story is an inspiration to all female scientists. Dr. Corkey attended New York University on a path to medical school, but dropped out to join a laboratory. She then pursued her interest in biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. Raising two children as a single mother, before marrying and having a third child, Dr. Corkey worked at several labs. She then earned her doctorate—her only degree—at the age of 43. She stayed at the University of Pennsylvania, conducting her groundbreaking research on diabetes and obesity, until she joined the faculty at Boston University in 1987.

How has mentorship shaped your career?
One day while wandering the halls at NYU medical school, I peeked into a small lab and saw a beating heart on a string. I stopped and asked the scientist how it was done. Two hours later, following a demonstration of stopping and restarting the heartbeat, I knew the answer: ions and fuel. I also knew that I wanted to do that sort of thing with my life rather than going to medical school. The scientist was Nobel laureate, Otto Loewi, my first mentor.

A few days later, wandering the same halls, I inquired about a research position and was hired as a technician in a lab where Bob Steele was developing the “Steele equations” used to this day to determine glucose kinetics in living animals and humans. There, I was taught a very high standard of scientific inquiry and great tolerance for “stupid” questions from several outstanding scientists, including Bob Steele, Richard deBodo, Norman Altszuler, and Arnold Dunn. They were my second mentors.

Finally, in 1962, I was hired by Britton Chance at the Johnson Foundation, University of Pennsylvania, where lively debate and challenging questions were a way of life.

From Steele, Chance, and Loewi I felt respected and challenged and sensed that life in science was a passionate, endlessly challenging way of life that I have grown to love.

 

Do you have advice for young female scientists?
Nurture the qualities of bravery and fierceness. The world of science is not fair! You can do all the right things, be smart and engaging and hardworking, and still receive rejection.

Don’t give up if research is your passion. We are capable of tremendous creativity, cooperativity, and perseverance. Research requires that kind of commitment, and great breakthroughs have rarely come easily.

 

What are some characteristics of a successful scientist?

A passion for discovery and a childish delight in finally understanding the way something works or the solution to a problem. A drive to find the answer and the patience to pursue many avenues toward an achievement. A sense that this is the only thing you can do.

What do you do outside the lab?
Paint, cook, train a puppy, and most interesting—travel.

What is a career achievement of which you are most proud?
None. My only goals have been to cure diabetes and obesity, and I have not yet succeeded. But I still think I can.

Has your research ever taken you to exotic/exciting locations?
Yes, one of the best perks in the life of a scientist is becoming a world citizen and traveling all over the globe. Some of my best trips have been to Israel, Scandinavia, Turkey, India, and Southeast Asia.


This page last updated: November 19, 2015

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