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Princeton professor overcomes challenges facing women in science to earn N.J. Chamber honor

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Bonnie Bassler, chair of Princeton University's Department of Molecular Biology, won the Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Award.
Bonnie Bassler, chair of Princeton University's Department of Molecular Biology, won the Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Award. - ()

Bonnie Bassler, Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology and chair of Princeton University's Department of Molecular Biology, received the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce's second annual Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Award on Thursday at a reception held at the National Conference Center in East Windsor.

“I’m delighted and honored to receive this very personal, very vocal and very meaningful award,” Bassler said. “It is a privilege to live and work in this state, and I thank the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce for supporting the economic engine on which New Jersey relies. Your advocacy, especially in the realm of innovation, provides a healthy environment in which the members of my team and I are encouraged to live within our minds … with the grand goal of making medicines that will improve human health across the globe.”

The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce created the Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Award last year to celebrate and salute the role women have played in New Jersey’s rich legacy of innovation, and to encourage gender diversity in business. Last year’s inaugural award was presented to former Bell Labs theoretical physicist and former Rutgers professor Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, now president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“The importance of Bonnie’s work cannot be overestimated, as medical professionals report more and more strains of bacteria becoming resistant to current antibiotics,” Tom Bracken, CEO and president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said. “Bonnie’s work is crucial to the medical field and equally important in ensuring New Jersey remains a leader in medical research.”

After receiving additional congratulations from Linda Bowden, regional president of PNC Bank and vice chairman of the board of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, and a congratulatory video message from Lt.Gov. Kim Guadagno, Bassler was introduced by the undergraduates, graduates and post-doctorates that comprise her research team.

“These scientists came to work with me in spite of my being a woman, knowing that by partnering with me, their work would also be undervalued,” Bassler said. “These are the women and men who made the discoveries for which I am being honored. I accept this award on behalf of my lab and I thank you for this prize that celebrates women’s contributions to science and innovation.”

Princeton University hired Bassler, a Chicago native, in 1994 after she had earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Johns Hopkins University.

“Princeton gave me a shot by hiring me at a time when my scientific ideas that bacteria can communicate and act as collectives were completely fringe and most certainly not embraced by the scientific community,” Bassler said. “That was compounded with the issue that, 22 years ago, science departments rarely hired women.

“The New Jersey school bucked both of those trends when they took me on. I made my home here, I built my lab here and, ultimately, people from all over the world moved to New Jersey to work with me.”

Bassler said she is lucky that one of the only gender-diversified Tier One biology departments in the country noticed her.

“That is probably why I succeeded,” she said. “I am so lucky to work in this fantastic department at Princeton University where they have built a non-bias culture.”

Bassler Lab at Princeton conducts research into how bacteria communicate with one another through a chemical process called “quorum sensing” to coordinate their invasions of plants, animals and people.

“My lab showed that bacteria require cell-to-cell communication to cause infection. They work in groups to kill you,” Bassler said. “Our idea is to interfere with bacterial communication to stop bacteria from harming us. Such communication manipulation strategies would form the basis of entirely new antibiotics, contributing to one of the world’s most pressing and unmet needs.

“Such medicines, because they interfere with communication rather than kill harmful bacteria, would work in fundamentally different ways than any antibiotic has ever worked in history.”

Bassler hopes her team’s research will help to stop “superbugs” from becoming even more prevalent.

“Traditional antibiotics kill bacteria — if any bacteria has a mutation that makes it resistant, only it and all the other resistant bacteria will grow,” she said. “What we are trying to do is make synthetic molecules that jam the bacteria’s receptors so that they cannot communicate. If the bacteria cannot recognize it has the numbers to launch an attack, the immune system can then wipe them out. These new antibiotics will therefore have long functioning, resistance-proof shelf lives.”

Since Bassler and her team work primarily on how organisms communicate, it is essential that they are also able to respectfully share ideas with each other in the lab.

“When women go to meetings, we often get ‘mansplained,’ ” Bassler said. “I’m very used to going to meetings and either being talked over or I say something that a male counterpart will then repeat so that everybody nods their heads.

“Men in my lab do not interrupt women. We argue about science in respectful, collaborative ways.”

Bassler hopes she will find more of the same when her research is ready to be put into action.

“Princeton does not have a medical school,” she said. “I have collaborators at different medical schools in New York and New Jersey — I depend on the state and the for-profit sector in biotech to make medicine using our discoveries.”

Unfortunately, gender bias in science is often difficult to ignore, Bassler said. 

“Women have to do two and a half times what a man does in order to achieve the same credibility today,” she said. “Women that are my age and older are helping to make sure change happens.

“But even if there is bias, this is the greatest life in the world. I get paid to go in every day and be with smart, curious people to make discoveries. … The thrill of science so outweighs the parts of the job that are not fair.”

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