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Linda Bartoshuk’s scientific trajectory has taken her from the stars to the senses. As a kid in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Bartoshuk traced the constellations in the night sky and dreamed of becoming an astronomer. Despite teachers’ well-meaning encouragement to pursue more “realistic” goals, like becoming a secretary or housewife, Bartoshuk bartered for high school math and science classes and then went off to college to study the universe. But when she learned that 1950’s astronomy didn’t welcome women, she signed up for a psychology class on a whim—and quite accidentally found her calling.
As an experimental psychologist, Bartoshuk has discovered unexpected links between human health and the sense of taste. Her work has shown that inhibitory processes—mechanisms that suppress pain, for example—underlie taste perception, and that nerve damage resulting from disease, trauma or chemotherapy can release that inhibition, causing pain or distorted taste. She was also the first to identify “supertasters” who have an unusually high number of taste buds and experience tastes more intensely than their fellow eaters. Her current research focuses on the connections between taste damage and obesity and on more accurate methods for comparing taste or pain experiences across people. Linda Bartoshuk was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2003.
Bartoshuk describes growing up with a passion for astronomy that many—including her parents and teachers—found peculiar. She follows that passion to Carleton College, where she comes to feel unwelcome and unwanted in astronomy and finds a new target for her talents: experimental psychology. Bartoshuk suggests that her father’s illness honed her interest in taste. While battling lung cancer, he endured a bizarre and distorted sense of taste that later plagued Bartoshuk’s brother as well. Bartoshuk discovers that nerve and tissue damage from chemotherapy caused their “taste phantoms” and provides doctors with a way to treat these taste disorders. Her research also leads her to reconcile with her graduate school mentor, who had expressed reservations about allowing women in his lab. When he develops a taste disorder late in life, he becomes Bartoshuk’s patient and ultimately her friend. Bartoshuk’s new project is changing how scientists and medical professionals measure experiences like pain. Nine-point scales mean little in a world where the scales differ dramatically across people, she argues. Bartoshuk urges young people interested in science to pursue what they love, as she has—even at 70, she says, she still can’t wait to get into the lab every day.
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.