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Listen or download interview (mp3, 21 minutes, 35MB)
When a young Mary Jane Osborn announced she wanted to be a nurse when she grew up, her father wondered aloud why she shouldn’t be a doctor instead. Fueled by his faith that she could succeed in what was then a man’s profession, Osborn went on to study physiology and biochemistry. Her work as a graduate student revealed how methotrexate, now a major cancer drug, acts on the body. Osborn then turned her abilities to microbiology, and spent decades exploring how bacteria make lipopolysaccharides—substances that help give potentially deadly bacteria their toxicity and virulence. Osborn is a professor in the Molecular, Microbial and Structural Biology department at the University of Connecticut Health Center. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1978.
Osborn describes her family’s journey west to California during the early 1930s, when she was only five years old. She grows up in Beverly Hills—amid surprisingly few celebrities—and follows her interest in science with her unconventional father’s encouragement. Osborn recalls the difficulties of her early years in physiology and at her ill father’s bedside, along with the triumphs of her years in biochemistry and microbiology. She explains how new techniques are exposing unexpected complexity in bacteria, and how better understanding the complicated bugs might help researchers tame their toxicity and develop new antibiotics. Sexism was only rarely an issue in her career, says Osborn, who urges young people—particularly young women—interested in scientific work to “go for it.”
Last Updated: 01-25-2011
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.