Bonnie Bassler, L’Oréal-UNESCO Laureate For North America

by Kaitlyn Webster

Dr. Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University wants to change the way you think about bacteria. The very word probably makes you grimace and search the depths of your purse for hand sanitizer, but I believe Dr. Bassler can help you overcome this prejudice. Step one is accepting that you are, by her calculations, only about 10% human. The rest of you, inside and out, is a bacterial world, and you are a bacterial girl… so to speak. Sound unbelievable? Trust her — she’s a scientist! If you still need some convincing, check out her recent TED talk on the secret social lives of bacteria.
L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science thinks Dr. Bassler has some bright ideas — not just about bio-luminescent bacteria, but about being a pioneering scientist and an inspiration to women in all walks of life. “Professor Bassler is passionate, energetic and has the uncanny ability to make bacteria come to life in a way that even this English major can understand,” says Rebecca Caruso, EVP of Corporate Communications at L’Oréal. While Dr. Bassler has more scientific accomplishments under her belt than you’ve got resident bacteria on your pinky finger, she was chosen by L’Oréal-UNESCO as this year’s North American Laureate not only for her work, but for her character, charisma, and love of life (biologically speaking, and not). Caruso adds, “The respectful, collegial relationship she has with her students is wonderful to see, and I can’t think of anyone who would be a better role model for future scientists than Dr. Bassler.”
I wholeheartedly agree, following a session of nerd girl talk I was lucky enough to have with Dr. Bassler. After we agreed on Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park being the greatest fictional scientist, I can definitely say she is my new favorite real one. A few questions into our Q&A and I have no doubt you will find her as charming and motivating as we do. She certainly has the power to transform what we think of bacteria, and ourselves as female scientists… and if bacteria ARE ourselves, I think we’ve just made a breakthrough.

1) What were you like as a young nerd girl?
Back then I never imagined I would become a scientist! There were no scientists in my family. I was a tall, skinny athlete, but still pretty nerdy. I loved reading, logic puzzles, animals, and nature and thought about being a veterinarian. Luckily, that led me to taking anatomy, biology, and chemistry in college. I realized that what I really liked about animals and nature was biology.

2) How would an organization like Nerd Girls have helped you back then?
Well we didn’t have any TV science programs back then besides Ranger Rick. There weren’t any nerd girls in the media to tell us it was cool to be smart, or to understand what the possibilities are in science careers. If I had known, I might have gone into biology on purpose!

3) How is the work of L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program improving girls’ understanding of those possibilities in STEM careers?
The laureates serve as a positive example, giving confidence to young girls and other women in science. It has been harder for females to succeed in science because of the confidence gap. I think almost all girls and women feel that. And when you get older, it becomes a credibility gap. But there is nothing special about me! My life is all about discovery; it’s a complete adventure, always fresh, always exciting. Even now, everything is new and sometimes I’m scared of it. But by highlighting a woman who is just lucky and enthusiastic, hopefully girls will look at me and think, “If she can do it, I can do it!”

4) You once rushed a podium, demanded a job from a speaker, and got it. (click pic for bio) How important is it for women in science to be assertive?
Honestly, I was terrified! But I thought, if he says no, ok — nothing will be different. And if I don’t ask, I can guarantee I won’t get the job! I really wanted the opportunity, but how would he have found me out of 500 people if I didn’t assert myself? Right now there are probably girls who are really interested in working in my lab, but are too scared to just email me. I want to find you! I was not shy, and I’ve been very lucky.

5) What would you say to girls who like science, but think it’s “too hard”?
Science is challenging. Twenty years in, I’m STILL trying to figure out how glow in the dark bacteria work! But I can’t confuse the challenge with being unsuccessful. Young girls often confuse “challenging” with “it’s not meant for me.” The thing is, you want your life to be challenging! A great rule is, if you love it, but it’s hard to do — do it!

6) How would you like to change the world?
I want to change the negative way people think about bacteria, and about science in general. This is not just research we do in our labs, these are often things we all vote on! People can be afraid of science, but I wish they would see how creative, magical, and adventurous it is, and be more informed about how the natural world works. Bacteria, for example, actually keep us alive! There would be no life on Earth without bacteria. I want to convince people that bacteria are at the heart of solving the world’s problems.

7) Who has better social skills, bacteria or scientists?
Bacteria have had a 4 billion year head start on us! They got it right by simply using chemistry to efficiently communicate things like, we’re related or you’re my enemy. The messages are not confused by the same social shenanigans as humans. We’ve had less time to evolve, but I think we will eventually catch up!

8) What do you like to do when you’re not at the lab bench?
I love seeing nature and wild animals! Recently I went hiking in the Tetons and Rockies, and spent 3 weeks in Africa. I also love cooking (as all biochemists do) and social dancing. I actually met my husband in a swing class, and have taught aerobics for the past 28 years! “Respect” by Aretha Franklin is a favorite to get the class moving.

9) Last but not least, after sharing your TED talk with my friends, the question on everyone’s mind is: what conditioner do you use?!
Oh, it comes out of my head like that… with some help from the TED make-up and hair person! Actually, that day I was using L’Oréal Paris Studio Line Mega Gel, and it must have been extreme hold!

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