Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics
Girl Geeks/My Story
Barkay, Tamar
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Tamar's Story
Barkay, Tamar

Phone: 732-932-9763, ext. 333

Ph.D., University of Maryland, 1980

Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, New Brunswick; Rutgers

Areas of Interest: Microbial Ecology of the Interactions of Microbes with Toxic Metals.
My involvement in research in the natural sciences starts with the deep love of nature that I have acquired from my mother, who has been a lover of nature all her life. She is the kind of person who would wake up at four in the morning, go out to the fields, lie on her stomach and count birds. Still, I never considered a career in science until after high school; in fact, one of the classes I disliked the most during high school was biology lab. Following my military service (as a Israeli this was mandatory) I returned to the Kibbutz where I was born. At that time, the Kibbutz offered all women upon their return from the service what was called “a 13th year of education”. The goal of this program was to enhance the women’s ability to gain a profession. So that offer made me choose. I didn’t have much of an idea of what I wanted to do but since I had been working in dairy production on the kibbutz since I was 14 years old, I enrolled at the Ag school of the Hebrew University in Rehovoth. I studied there for a three and a half years graduating with a B.Sc. degree and a solidified interest in natural sciences, especially microbiology and genetics.

Upon graduation, I intended to continue my studies in Rehovoth towards a Masters in plant pathology. However, the two people whose research was of interest to me were leaving on sabbatical leaves. This was during the “Flaming Seventies” and the environment was on most young people’s minds. At that time the Hebrew University in Jerusalem launched a new graduate program in human ecology and since I could not continue my studies in Rehovoth, I applied and was subsequently accepted to this program. My Masters thesis topic, marine microbiology, introduced me to environmental microbiology, the field of science I am engaged in to this day.

After living for twenty-eight years in Israel, a small and very crowded country, I wanted to have a chance to experience life elsewhere. So, when I was about to complete my Masters studies, I wrote to several people of whose work I learnt of by reading their papers. One person who stood out for me was Rita Colwell, a marine microbiologist at the University of Maryland. She wrote back saying that she had enough money to support me for six months, “if you want to come, come”. So, I went to Maryland and after being there for a few months, Rita suggested that I get my PhD in her lab.

After a couple of postdoctoral fellowships, one at the Weitzman Institute in Israel and the other at the University of California, Irvine, I became a scientist with the federal government working on biotechnology risk assessment in an Environmental Protection Agency lab in Gulf Breeze, FL. During my twelve years there I established myself in my area of expertise, the microbiology of mercury transformations. In the mid nineties I realized that if I wanted to continue to do my scientific work in the manner that would be acceptable to me, I would have to look for another job. Joining Rutgers as a faculty in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, in the fall of 1999, gave me this opportunity. I don’t regret making the move from government research to academia; it’s not easy work but it’s great fun.

Persistence has always pushed me forward even when faced with obstacles and frustrations. My parents were born in Germany so I grew up with northern European work and life ethics, which have impacted how I operate. In my work, I always try to have a big picture in mind of where my studies may lead and this has been important in terms of studying and understanding new things and mastering new technologies.

Now that I am closer to the end than to the beginning of my working life, I am concerned with who is going to continue my work. The biogeochemistry of mercury is a small field of science and there are not many microbiologists working in this area. I am most proud of the students who I have trained. They are doing very well making important and major contributions to this field of science and I am confident that they will carry the torch so that microbiology will continue to be a part of mercury biogeochemistry.
Transcribed from an interview and edited by Lauren Miller