Features: In Love with My Job

    In Love with My Job

    This personal reflection is one of several dozen presented in Many Faces--Many Microbes

    Amy Cheng Vollmer

    "How can I get a job like yours?" This question is posed to me frequently at meetings by interested graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. I think that there are many reasons people ask this question. First, I really like what I do, and I think that is communicated to those with whom I interact. Second, student interest in research is often spurred by a positive undergraduate experience. Finally, people who enjoy teaching would like a job that combines teaching and research to a greater extent than occurs in research universities.

    How did I get to this point? By a rather circuitous route, as occurs in most careers. I certainly did not plan to be a tenured faculty member at a selective liberal arts college on the East Coast of the United States. In looking back, it is clear that I followed my instincts and intuitions, which have served me well. In addition, knowledge and reasoning have also been beneficial, but many decisions I made were based on rather incomplete knowledge and sloppy logic. While I believe that scientists and scientific pursuits should be based on understanding and intellectual analysis, emotion and personality (as well as serendipity) play important, but often discounted, roles.

    I was born in Las Vegas, New Mexico, a small town with limited cultural diversity. In fact, I was the first Chinese baby in recorded history to be born there. My parents were both chemists who had come to the United States for graduate study in the late 1940s and early 1950s. When I was born, my father was doing postdoctoral research at New Mexico Highlands University. Because of the Korean War, he couldn't find employment in industry because he was Chinese. My parents had intended to return to China after the completion of their graduate studies. However, the China they left behind soon disappeared, and they remained in this country instead.

    I remember going to the laboratory with my father on Saturday mornings and watching crystals form in a beaker and getting to collect the crystals in a filter. I liked the physicality of folding filter paper and stirring solutions and working alongside my father. My mother also worked in a laboratory. Occasionally I would get to go to work with her. She worked with many more instruments, and I remember thinking how smart she was to know which of the many thousands of knobs to turn at just the right minute. Not only did I feel comfortable in a laboratory, but I knew that it was where I wanted to be.

    My choice of an undergraduate institution was based on several things: small size, fine science departments, favorable male-to-female ratio, weather, and geography. Rice University fit all of the criteria, and I was lucky enough to gain early decision acceptance. My choice of major at Rice was emotional as well as intellectual. I was good at chemistry, but I just couldn't imagine majoring in it. After all, my parents were chemists, and that would just be too predictable! I loved biology in high school because of a fabulous teacher, Frank L. Stark. His enthusiasm for the diversity of life and its many facets was inspiring. So I went to Rice planning to major in biology. Shortly after I arrived, however, I realized that there was one part of biology that really intrigued me: the part with chromosomes and genes and molecules. (It never occurred to me that it was the chemical part of biology that I liked.) One Saturday morning, I was wandering around the Biology Department corridors and met Kathleen S. Matthews, a young assistant professor. When I asked her about biology as a possible major and told her of my interests, she perked up and said, "I think biochemistry is what you want to study." She was part of the newly founded department at Rice, one of the first to offer a comprehensive undergraduate major in biochemistry. That sealed it. Here she was, a cheerful and smart woman, a principal investigator who had her own lab-my first professional role model! As a junior at Rice, I found my way into Dr. Frederick B. Rudolph's lab, working on an undergraduate thesis project. Fred's lab studied purine biosynthetic enzymes from rat liver and bacteria. During one rat liver enzyme purification, I had a negative encounter with a rat, whose tail I had broken before it was to be sacrificed. Fred took the broken, twitching tail out of my hand, looked at my pale face, and said quietly, "Why don't you work on the bacterial enzyme?" Thus, I was introduced to the wonders of bacteria!

    I applied to a number of biochemistry programs for graduate work and decided to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana. The people there were the friendliest when I interviewed, and I liked the variety of projects that were being studied. There was also a woman on the faculty; many of the other departments I visited had only male faculty members, although I noticed that many of the senior technicians and instructors were women. At that time, there was no rotation program for first-year students in the department at Illinois. Instead, first-year students met faculty and heard about their research in a small seminar series. It was from such a series that I learned about bacterial cells (in particular Bacillus subtilis) and the amazing things they could sense, make, and do. I was interested in biochemistry and intrigued by the context provided by the bacterial cell and its population dynamics.

    Working in Bob Switzer's lab was a fabulous experience for my scientific training and also because Bob served as a fine mentor and role model. In contrast to many other biochemistry students, I chose to do most of my coursework in the Microbiology Department, just across the street. I had the unbelievable luck to take classes from Ralph Wolfe, Jeff Gardner, and John Cronan. Their excitement about microbiology was contagious, and I was definitely "infected" for life! I was in the audience in Urbana when Carl Woese outlined his early ideas about the position of the Archaea in evolution. The fertility of the University of Illinois campus for microbiology was something that I certainly have appreciated more each year as I continue to meet microbiologists who were influenced by their experiences there.

    Another important aspect of my graduate training was the teaching requirement. All graduate students in the School of Chemical Sciences (where the Biochemistry Department was housed) had to teach one or two semesters. We served as teaching assistants in laboratory sections or tutorial sections, mostly in the general chemistry curriculum. I was lucky enough to teach in the biochemistry lab, because I had taken several biochemistry courses as an undergraduate (such courses were less common for undergraduate students in the 1970s). I loved teaching. Evaluations from students were encouraging because I was able to communicate my knowledge and enthusiasm as well as my technical expertise effectively. I was even recognized with an award by the School of Chemical Sciences; these awards usually went to general chemistry teaching assistants (who taught freshmen) rather than biochemistry teaching assistants (who taught upperclassmen and graduate students-a tougher audience).

    After a productive two-year foray into an immunology postdoctoral fellowship, I decided that I preferred the world of prokaryotes, as well as the scientists who studied them. I then began a four-year term as an assistant professor in biology at Mills College in Oakland, California, spending my summers in Dale Kaiser's lab at Stanford University. I became acquainted with myxobacteria and the folks in Dale's lab. Although I enjoyed teaching courses in cellular and molecular biology and immunology at Mills, the environment there was not conducive to a productive research program.

    A new opportunity presented itself when our family relocated to the mid-Atlantic area. The DuPont Company had recruited my husband, and there was an opening for a one-year leave replacement for a microbiologist at Swarthmore College. Although I had never taught microbiology, I knew that I would love it, and my research interests were much more closely aligned with the teaching. Because of a number of unforeseen and fortuitous circumstances, I was eventually hired to fill a tenure-track position as a microbiologist. I have now been at Swarthmore for 11 years! I enjoy teaching in the general biology sequence as well as my microbiology and biotechnology courses.

    On my sabbaticals from Swarthmore, I have been fortunate to work in the laboratory of Bob LaRossa. His microbial genetics group at DuPont in Wilmington, Del., focuses on ways to use basic microbial genetics to benefit the agricultural and pharmaceutical research interests at DuPont. From Bob and his coworkers, I have learned the true value of teamwork and collegiality. I can also tell my students about the differences between academic and industrial research from a unique perspective.

    Being a member of Bob's group has led to many papers and presentations. The research program in my own lab has focused on bacterial stress response, and we have been studying the role of the universal stress protein (UspA), which we believe, based on recent work, acts as a set of "brakes" on most of the stress responses in the cell. Absence of this protein results in an "overreaction" to stress and drains Escherichia coli of its precious energy reserve. Presently, we are investigating the roles of the two genes that show homology to UspA to determine if they also serve in similar capacities. We are also investigating bacterial responses to ultrasound in E. coli as part of a study to determine how ultrasound can be best used to sterilize water and contaminated objects. This project is a collaboration with an engineering colleague on campus. The stress response field is exploding with new ideas and discoveries in the areas of microbial ecology, pathogenesis, genetics, physiology, and general microbiology. In 2000, I look forward to serving my colleagues as vice-chair of the fourth Gordon Conference on Microbial Stress Response.

    Best of all, at Swarthmore, I am able to combine my research interests with my joy of teaching-of interacting with students in a research laboratory setting. I have been able to engage a number of undergraduate students (as well as high school students) in research. In the forty-three papers and abstracts that I have listed on my curriculum vitae, sixteen have at least one student as a coauthor/presenter. There is nothing more satisfying in my work than contributing to the development of a young investigator. Training includes design and execution of experiments, data analysis, model building, oral and written presentations, and experiencing a general meeting of ASM, as well as smaller regional meetings of microbiologists. Finally, our laboratory is a social place. We work hard and we play hard. We have regular group meetings at which every person presents 10 to 15 minutes of material, and, in the tradition of the Switzer lab, we take (and post) pictures of lab members. Anyone who wants to be a scientist because he or she is not a "people person" should probably seek another line of work. I can't imagine an area that requires more effective social interactions than the lab!

    As an academic microbiologist, I tell people that I have the best job in the world! I work with fine students in a vibrant department at a fabulous institution. In my field of research (bacterial stress response), I meet interesting and dynamic people who work on ecological, medical, and evolutionary problems. My professional society (ASM) represents a diverse community of people and works to further the professional development of its members, as well as to encourage potential new members. I learn something every day from colleagues and students, and my enthusiasm for my subject continues to be fueled by these daily interactions. It is hard work to keep up and try to make a contribution. It requires discipline and energy, but I am sustained by numerous supports. I look back on many lucky turns my career has taken and look forward to a microbial world filled with many more lessons!


    Belkin, S., D. R. Smulski, A. C. Vollmer, T. K. Van Dyk, and R. A. LaRossa. 1996. Oxidative stress detection with Escherichia coli harboring a katG'::lux fusion. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 62:2252-2256.

    Belkin, S., T. K. Van Dyk, A. C. Vollmer, D. R. Smulski, T. R. Reed, and R. A. LaRossa. 1996. Monitoring sub-toxic environmental hazards by stress responsive luminous bacteria. Environ. Tox. Water Qual. 11:179-185.

    Van Dyk, T. K., D. R. Smulski, T. R. Reed, S. Belkin, A. C. Vollmer, and R. A. LaRossa. 1995. Responses to toxicants of an Escherichia coli strain carrying a uspA`::lux genetic fusion and an E. coli strain carrying a grpE'::lux fusion are similar. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 61:4124-4127.

    Vollmer, A. C., S. Kwakye, M. Halpern, and E. C. Everbach. 1998. Bacterial stress responses to 1-megahertz pulsed ultrasound in the presence of microbubbles. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 64:3927-3931.

    Vollmer, A. C. 1998. Genotoxic sensors. Methods Mol. Biol. 102:145-151.

    Vollmer, A. C., S. Belkin, D. R. Smulski, T. K. Van Dyk, and R. A. LaRossa. 1997. Detection of DNA damage by use of Escherichia coli carrying recA'::lux, uvrA'::lux, or alkA'::lux reporter plasmids. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 63:2566-2571.

    Vollmer, A. C., S. Kwayke, M. Halpern, and E. C. Everbach. 1998. Use of bioluminescent Escherichia coli to detect damage due to ultrasound. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 64:3927-3931.