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Listen or download interview (mp3, 31 minutes, 29MB)
For Caroline Harwood, science means solving “real problems for real people.” That single, simple principle has driven the microbiologist to explore some pretty complicated territory. Through her research, scientists now know more about how bacteria encase themselves in antibiotic-resistant slime, survive in seemingly toxic environments, and break down pollutants in the earth’s soil. Her current work on photosynthetic bacteria may even create a pollution-free source of hydrogen, a potential fuel for future technology.
Harwood didn’t come by her commitment to practical science easily: it grew from her daughter’s battle with cystic fibrosis, a deadly genetic disease. People with cystic fibrosis produce abnormal mucus that impairs their breathing and digestion and leaves them vulnerable to pathogens. One of these is the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can also infect burn victims and others with compromised immune systems. When Harwood began working on Pseudomonas as a postdoctoral researcher, she admits she wasn’t thinking about the bacterium’s association with disease. But she credits her daughter’s illness with redirecting her science, making it as much about helping others as it is about gaining knowledge for its own sake. Harwood is the Gerald and Lyn Grinstein Endowed Professor in Microbiology at the University of Washington, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2009.
Harwood remembers an idyllic childhood in small-town New York, where time spent playing in the woods feeds her scientific curiosity about the natural world. School proves frustrating, however, until Harwood attends an all-girls’ boarding school that challenges and empowers her. That experience sustains her through disappointing and difficult college years and lands her, as a 25-year-old master’s student, in a microbiology class that sets the course for the rest of her career. Fascinated by bacteria, Harwood sets out to understand their strange capabilities—how they can feed on otherwise toxic solvents, for instance, or form protective films. She focuses on pseudomonas, a bacterial strain that frequently infects the lungs of patients with cystic fibrosis. Harwood recalls her shock when, years later, her own first child is born with the disease, and recounts how her daughter’s journey reshapes her scientific interests and those of Harwood’s husband, a fellow microbiologist. The experience inspires Harwood to seek out projects that can help society, she says, and she describes her work to find targets for the next generation of antibiotics and breed bacteria that can eat pollutants and create the non-polluting fuels of the future.
Last Updated: 11-14-2010
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The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.