Maya Ajmera, President & CEO of the Society for Science & the Public and Publisher of Science News, chatted with Dianne K. Newman, an alumna of the International Science and Engineering Fair and the Gordon M. Binder/Amgen Professor of Biology and Geobiology at Caltech. She is a MacArthur Fellow, Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and member of the National Academy of Sciences. We are thrilled to share an edited summary of their conversation.
You are an alumna of the 1987 and 1988 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). How did the competition impact your life?
ISEF was by far the most memorable thing I did in high school. ISEF 1987 was the highlight because it was held in Puerto Rico. I grew up in South America, so I really enjoyed going back to a Spanish-speaking place. Beyond the tourist value, I loved the experience of being taken seriously as a scientist at that very young age. It gave me confidence.
I also gained lifelong friendships with the two women who took me to ISEF: Nancy Aiello and Sally Wrenn, who were the directors of the Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair (VSSEF). More than anything, the encouragement they gave me during that fair, and ever since, has been the most important thing I took from ISEF.
That particular year at ISEF, I won a second-place award in physics, which was shocking. I didn’t expect to win anything. The most important memory I have is of my father, who joined me at VSSEF. I’ll never forget the look of joy and pride in his eyes as I was explaining my project during the final round of judging. It’s one of my most cherished memories.
My love for scientific research was enabled by my parents, neither of whom were scientists, and my confidence in my scientific abilities was reinforced by participating in science fairs. It motivated me to pursue science and engineering in graduate school.
You originally entered an environmental engineering program at MIT but then moved to microbiology. What prompted the change?
Serendipity. During my first semester at MIT, I took a course in environmental microbiology where I wrote a research paper about the degradation of perchloroethylene, a solvent that was contaminating groundwater. Through this assignment, I learned that microbes could eat toxic molecules and oxidize them to CO2. I thought bioremediation was remarkable and totally fascinating. When I realized that microbes are quite literally the best chemists on Earth, I was captivated and wanted to know more.
Your lab looks at the coevolution of life and Earth. Tell me more about what you’re working on right now.
I am fascinated by how microbes thrive under conditions where oxygen is scarce and they are growing slowly. For almost two decades, we’ve been researching