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Molecular Biology

Amy S. Gladfelter ’96

Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences, Dartmouth College

As an ambitious and anxious first-year student, I knew I had an affinity for biology and assumed I would be a doctor because “that is what you did” if you liked thinking about the mechanics of life. I was eager to jump right in to the pre-health curriculum and so as a freshman took my first class in molecular biology (MOL 214) in the worn, wooded walls of McCosh Hall. I was immediately transfixed by both the chaos and order that occurs in each and every living cell on the planet. After the first week or so, I recall sitting on a stone wall near Lake Carnegie and explaining to my future husband (a class of 1995 engineer) how DNA is replicated. I was bursting with amazement at the tiny cell machines that accurately copy our genetic code with every cell division. He dutifully listened and nodded and still does when I come home equally excited with a new result from the lab that I now lead at Dartmouth. This first course in molecular biology suddenly made me question my safe and linear path to medical school and stirred a passion I feel to this day about understanding the inner life of a cell.

Through summer research stints studying plant genetics and mammalian physiology, I realized that experimental sciences require a mix of imagination, optimism, and tenacity that just fit my personality. I entertained alternatives to the lab bench, such as science writing, teaching, and the Peace Corps, but the test tubes, petri dishes, and hum of the cytoplasm always called me back. As a junior, I was still plagued with uncertainty about whether I had what it took to be a scientist and was a little concerned that I was too gregarious to weather the lonely hours in lab.

Inspired by exciting faculty

For my senior thesis, I was drawn immediately to the newest lab in the molecular biology department at the time—that of Professor Bonnie Bassler. The idea of studying how cells make light and how bacteria could communicate sounded so interesting. After hounding her relentlessly to talk about her work, I lucked out to be her first undergraduate in her new lab. Importantly, I realized from watching Bonnie that science was social and involved a lot of time interacting with people, motivating others, and explaining your work. She is such a funny, challenging, and “real” person and she helped me see in myself a potential to go on in science. I also recall attending a dinner in the Rockefeller College dining hall where Professor Shirley Tilghman, then a member of the molecular biology faculty and now Princeton’s president, described how thrilling it was to have a job where you solve puzzles about life. Here were two excited, vivacious, and down-to-earth women who showed me by example how interesting and rewarding it could be to be a research scientist.

So I went ahead to graduate school and continued on for a postdoc, and I have been a scientist and professor at Dartmouth now for more than five years. The path of an academic scientist is more circuitous and far less certain (or as lucrative!) than that of many physicians. But for me the curves and blind spots that test my wits, patience, and trust in myself are somehow satisfying. I am rewarded by the pleasure of revealing this microscopic wonderland to the next generation of undergraduate and graduate students and by the thrill of discovering something new about how a cell makes decisions. I have traveled and lived abroad doing science, have close colleagues spread all over the world, and am never, ever bored in my job or remotely lonely. I am always surrounded by a group of enthusiastic, sometimes angst-filled, young scientists practicing discovery in my midst. 

Learning decision-making tools

Running a research lab in academia is like running a small business and requires skills I gathered throughout my Princeton education, from my freshman ancient Greek class to a senior-level art history class—microscopy images are art after all! I am always learning and feel as pulled in a million directions as I was as an undergraduate dashing about on campus—this frenetic feeling of “so little time, so many things to learn” keeps me going to this day. My field is always changing; there are always models being turned upside down and revolutions in approaches coming down the pipes. There are few careers that would keep delivering such freshness basically each day.

For some reason, ancient Greek seemed like a natural thing to study freshman year. From it, I learned when I needed to stop doing something that wasn’t working and try something new—a key for making strategic decisions at the lab bench. My freshman seminar on the Florentine Renaissance with Professor Anthony Grafton gave me a phrase that I use daily now because so much of my time is spent writing papers, grants, and e-mails. He said, “If you really like a sentence that you have written, it is probably terrible, so you’d better delete it and start over.” Most importantly, all of my courses taught me to apply myself fully to a problem, question my ideas and those of others, and engage in discourse. Nearly all of my classes at Princeton allowed me to practice these skills that are integral to my career now. When you do this and have the pleasure of working on your passion, the practicalities and details of a career will follow. 

I still love to explain how cells work, and I feel privileged that my job is to discover more about cell function. This passion sustains me and has kept me a dedicated researcher and teacher through the additional pandemonium of raising small children—because I found a vocation that I love, it is worth the energy I expend to balance a busy career with careful parenting. I can’t imagine a different path through life, even though I certainly couldn’t have dreamed it when I first arrived on campus.