Dr. Barbara Sorkin: Science is the Most Exciting Puzzle #womeninscience

Author: Leticia Nani Silva

Barbara Sorkin Ph.D co-directs the botanical research centers program at the National Institutes of Health in the United States. The Centres’ research aims to increase knowledge on botanical health effects, including safety. In this interview, Dr. Sorkin discusses her love for research, her inspirations, and how science is her favorite jigsaw puzzle. One piece at a time will reveal a new discovery for human health.

Establishing Yourself as a Scientist – Where it All Began

“My dad was a violinist, but he also played chess and loved algebra. He never thought I would be as fascinated as he was with the world of science. I remember he had a beautiful collection of ‘Scientific American’ magazines that dated back to the year I was born. As a teenager I began to surf through those, getting drawn into the world of a different area from what I do today. My first love within the world of science was sleep.” 

“At school I was always very inquisitive and as a result, my biology teacher saw this potential in me and decided to sign me up for some Saturday science classes at a local university and medical school. I soon found out that science was all about problem-solving, and I loved problem-solving. However, I was more interested in solving puzzles that have to do with real-life and the bigger picture.”

The Moment it all Became Real 

“I think the most significant moment for me was when I observed DNA wound out as a clear jelly-like lump on a rod at the interface between a clear aqueous layer and a phenol layer. You could just see the DNA spooling out of the liquid and becoming visible around the rod. I had this flash of realizing that the macroscopic properties reflected the molecular structure – the length of the DNA molecules – and wanted to pursue a career where you can work to understand the underpinnings of life, make a difference for human health, and have flashes of insight like that.”

My conversation with Barbara took me back to a day in my life which left a lasting impression; the day that I was asked to hold a brain in one of our anatomy classes. I was fascinated by the fact that I was holding someone’s memories in the palm of my hand. That’s when I figured out I had an immense passion for neuroscience. It puts everything into perspective for me, and I cherish those university years so much. Sometimes, I wish I could go back and do it all over again.

Challenges and Battle of the Sexes

“I did my four years at university almost entirely with male instructors. They were very supportive and encouraging. I learned that a person’s ability to learn is not dependent on sex at all. However, your ability to be recognized, unfortunately still too often depends on how you’re categorized. Sometimes I’ve made a suggestion in a group of people and watched it disappear in the flow of conversation, only to be brought up again by a male colleague, and finally then it would be acknowledged. However, I’ve learned that you have to pick and choose your battles. Sometimes it’s not about getting the credit, sometimes it’s about finding the right solution, no matter who claims it”.

“You are going to fail on occasion if you attempt big puzzles, tough challenges, but learning how to recover when you miss your target is how you grow and acquire new skills. That ability to see what didn’t work and learn from it, use it as food for growth – or for a completely new hypothesis – will likely take you further in the long run than succeeding quickly”.

Pressure in Society 

There is this growing pressure within society that demands women to wear several hats all in one go and all within the same timeline. What do you think about that?

“Yes, some women feel this constant pressure, that they’re not dedicating enough time to their research, or mentoring, or grant applications, or families. Even when we are successful, we think we need to be doing more, reading one more paper before bed, analyzing one more set of results before leaving to go home. Perhaps after seeing the effects of the pandemic, society will become better at providing childcare and social support for women, and for families with young children or other caregiving responsibilities”.

Past and Future Inspirations

Does what inspired you in the past, still drive you today?

“Yes, and no. I am still very much inspired by discovery and the opportunity to connect with research that may improve human health. And no, because as a young dreamer I aspired to make paradigm-shifting scientific breakthroughs, cure cancer, and win a Nobel Prize. Forty years on, I have learned how to toggle the magnification, to keep shifting focus between the larger research picture, and what I can do to make a positive difference each day. I spend a lot of my time helping scientists around the United States understand how to access grant opportunities at our National Institutes of Health. I also aim to advance research by opening the research literature to everyone around the world, to help disseminate useful, rigorous science”. 

“Science and people evolve in unexpected ways. Even though some of the things that motivated me before don’t fall within my focus today, I have a career with purpose that keeps me fascinated day-in and day-out”.

I would like to offer my sincere thanks to Dr. Barbara Sorkin for agreeing to take part in this blog series and for being an inspiration to all her communities. 

The world of academia is changing – and it feels like it is time for that change. We need to provide better amenities and support for our female scientists, independent of their age and their personal life. Science is not about picking and choosing, but about widening the choices; it’s about diversity, equity, and inclusivity, and looking forward into the future.