The New York Times profiles Microbiologist Rachel Dutton, aka the scientist with one of the most interesting jobs out there:
For those who have made their way to her, Ms. Dutton is an exceptional find: a scientist who can explain arcane concepts in laymen’s terms, who dispenses her expertise pro bono, and who shares their fascination with good food.
Inside Harvard’s gleaming Northwest Science Building here, Ms. Dutton and two postdoctoral researchers, Benjamin Wolfe and Julie Button, have been culturing cheese samples for scientific scrutiny. In a large, open laboratory filled with beakers and centrifuges, the three work on isolating bacteria and fungi from cheese rinds, storing them in petri dishes in a modified refrigerator they call the cave.
Ms. Dutton, 32, started out as neither a cheesemaker nor a turophile (cheese lover). Her first love is science.
After finishing doctoral work on tuberculosis and E. coli, she began searching for a guinea pig to study the microcosmos. She needed a village of microbes that could help scientists understand how more-complex populations communicate and build microscopic societies that we macrobes depend upon. (After all, microbes take up residence in our homes, the soil, oceans and even within our guts, where they outnumber body cells nine to one and often prove essential to health.)
Her model organism had to be complex, but not so complex that it couldn’t be replicated in a lab. That’s when Ms. Dutton came across the cheese section in “On Food and Cooking,” and said to herself, “This is the community I have been looking for.”
In 2010, she began an ambitious five-year project to sequence, analyze and map the DNA of organisms found on 160 different cheese rinds from around the world. Viewed under a scanning electron microscope, these microbial villages can look very simple or highly diverse — as different as the ecology of Lincoln Center’s well-manicured lawn and that of the High Line before its flourishing weeds were tamed.
(Photo ©2012 New York Times)
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