According to my parents, I’ve wanted to be a scientist since before I can remember. My parents sold our house in Huntington, Long Island to the inventor of the standard cell line used for biochemistry. All I can recall is their excitement: “We’re selling our house to a scientist! You’ve always wanted to be a scientist!” I can’t remember what precipitated this, but apparently, I have been interested in science since early on.
In my family, I am the first of three children and this meant that I was always expected to help out. I never had to face the fact that I was a girl and therefore shouldn’t do certain things. Being the oldest meant that I had responsibilities; I was out shoveling snow regardless of my gender. My father owned a family business and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. I was raised as a secular Jew and my community and culture strongly emphasized the importance of
B. Firestein working as a postdoc at the lab of UC San Francisco, October 1998.
a good education. My father took night classes to earn a Bachelor’s degree and taught me, by example, the importance of learning.
Overall, I would have to say the person who has had the biggest influence on me was my high school Math and Computer Science teacher. The way he taught in high school was the way people teach (or should teach) in college. His exams were thought provoking, not just rote memorization. He was brilliant and had graduated second in his class from the University of Michigan, which is where I decided to go. I feel as though he really taught me how to think like a scientist.
I became interested in neuroscience specifically because of my undergraduate thesis. I attended University of Michigan and participated in the honors program there, which included writing an undergraduate thesis. I was a Cellular and Molecular Biology major, but based on the classes I had taken, I found it pretty boring (which is ironic because now I am working in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience). I took a Physiological Psych course and fell in love with the topic. I decided to do my honors thesis work with someone who was a biological/physiological psychology professor, and ended up working with a neuroscientist.
When I went to college I knew I was a scientist-type person, but I was never interested in medicine. Originally, I planned on majoring in Math, but I never received much guidance. No one ever explained to me the opportunities available for someone with a Ph.D. in Math. There was a great deal of pressure to declare my major. The CMB major was really aggressive in recruiting me, and after learning about the research going on there, I decided to major in it.
The biggest challenge in my career so far has been dealing with people who don’t take me seriously. I am a very informal person and run a fun lab, which often causes people to think that my lab members may not be serious in our research. Being female complicates this even more as students and colleagues often forget that I am a professional. Despite this, I have published dozens of papers and have become well-established in my field. Being a woman and a scientist has definitely offered its challenges, but it is not without its rewards.
My advice to my grad students, and to future students, is to enjoy what you’re doing. People are happiest, not when they achieve a difficult goal, but when they are working towards it.
My biggest accomplishment is raising my son Max. He is 4 right now, and although I get a lot of joy from science, it doesn’t come anywhere near the joy that Max’s smiling face brings to me every day.