Dr. Amanda Barry of Los Alamos National Laboratory is one of the Energy Department’s leading molecular biologists in the field of algal biofuels. Dr. Barry is also part of team of researchers from the New Mexico Consortium, a nonprofit focused on solving global environmental and health issues. We chatted with Dr. Barry about her work, inspiration and advice for future scientists.
1. What inspired you to become a scientist?
As long as I can remember, I have been curious to understand the natural world around me, especially as an only child growing up in the mountains, a 20-minute drive from the closest neighbor. I recall reading about Marie Curie in elementary school and never questioning that I would become a scientist.
2. What do you think is the greatest benefit of algal biofuels?
Algal biofuels have the potential to not only make fuel for cars and trucks, but also for aviation, and they can be cultivated in areas not utilized for food production.
3. How is your research helping to make algal biofuels more affordable and sustainable?
I study how to manipulate the biology and biochemistry of algae in order to give algae desirable properties, such as growing faster, using alternative carbon substrates, or producing valuable co-products that could be made alongside oil in the cell. This involves introducing foreign pieces of DNA or altering the expression of native genes in biofuel production strains of algae.
4. What’s the most exciting aspect of your work at Los Alamos National Laboratory and at the New Mexico Consortium?
The opportunities for collaboration. At Los Alamos National Laboratory and the New Mexico Consortium, we have engineers, computer modelers, geneticists, chemists, ecologists and biologists working as a team to answer research questions. It is intellectually invigorating.
5. What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
The best life advice I received was from Wil Gamble, a biochemistry professor at Oregon State University. We were discussing my cross-country drive to graduate school in Wisconsin, and he advised me to fit everything I own into my car. That worked for about four years.
The best science advice I received was from my mentor Svetlana Lutsenko at Johns Hopkins University. She advised me to imagine my research in manuscript form, to first create the outline of the research paper and then perform the experiments necessary to complete it, even if you are often surprised by the results. It keeps you focused on your hypothesis and what you are testing.
6. What books do you read or movies do you watch for inspiration?
I enjoy fiction, including science fiction, which often has amazing, completely impossible scientists. I like to imagine I am a researcher on Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Green Mars,” genetically engineering organisms to thrive on an alien planet. I also have a penchant for Russian literature and American poetry. My favorite movies are “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Alien vs. Predator,” because who wouldn’t want to meet aliens and save the world?
7. Which famous inventor or scientist do you admire the most and why?
I admire all female scientists who balance their research with family obligations despite social prejudice or lack of institutional support. I also admire the female scientists of previous generations who chose not to have a family in order to devote themselves to their careers without stigma.
8. What guidance do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in science?
Being a scientist can be a very rewarding career. It can also be frustrating with long hours in the lab spent on an experiment that may not give you the results you are hoping for. Keep focused, remember the hypotheses you are testing, stay organized, synthesize often, write everything down and always run controls. Read, read, read.