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Interview: Linda Bartoshuk

Even if you haven’t heard of Linda Bartoshuk, you probably have heard of her research. Now a professor at the University of Florida, Gainsville, Bartoshuk coined the term “supertasters” to describe the 25 percent of the population who have an unusually high number of taste buds,  affecting how food tastes. She has spent nearly 50 years studying psychophysics, the study of how physical stimuli from the environment lead to subjective experience, focused mostly on taste. In this week’s Science (subscription required), correspondent John Bohannon writes about her career and her latest projects, including developing new evaluation methods for sensory research.

While Bartoshuk’s research involves the senses, some of her stories are more likely to arouse your emotions: Now 71, Bartoshuk grew up in an era where women just didn’t do science.  She faced blatant discrimination throughout her career. Here’s an excerpt from the Science article:

As a girl born in mostly rural South Dakota in 1938, science was not high on the list of career options for Bartoshuk. But after reading every science-fiction book she could get her hands on, the young Bartoshuk dreamed of astronomy. Her high school had other plans for her. “They forced me to take secretary classes,” she recalls with a wry smile. They did accede to Bartoshuk’s request to take trigonometry, physics, and chemistry. “I was the only girl in the class, and I was as surprised as anyone when I got the highest grades.” It helped her win a scholarship to attend Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota — her family couldn’t afford the tuition otherwise — and it was science ever after.

Bartoshuk says she abandoned astronomy when she learned that “women weren’t allowed to use the big telescopes.” She switched to the field that would become the scientific love of her life: psychophysics, the study of how physical stimuli from the environment — sugar on your tongue, vibrations in your ear, heat on your skin — lead to the mysterious phenomenon called subjective experience. …

As a first-year graduate student at Brown University, Bartoshuk wanted to work with Carl Pfaffmann, the first to identify the nerves that send taste signals from the mouth to the brain. She vividly recalls her first conversation with the man who would become her Ph.D. adviser. “Pfaffmann told me point-blank that he didn’t want women in his lab,” Bartoshuk says. “They’re always crying and washing their hair.”

I spoke with Bartoshuk this week to learn more about the resistance she faced throughout her career. She spoke about her rocky relationship with her Ph.D. adviser, and how she managed to succeed in his lab. She talked about the discrimination she faced from the director of the research foundation where she worked. “The discrimination against me was so blatant that I had all kinds of social support,” she says. “The more subtle discrimination is much much harder to live with, I think.”

While she’ll gladly share her stories, her path is not one to emulate, she says: “There’s no moral here. I think I should have done things differently, and I didn’t. In the era I lived in, it turned out that that was a survival path, and I can’t tell you the sympathy I have for women who just don’t get lucky like that.”

It’s clear from reading the Science article and from talking with her that she absolutely loves her research — and that is the key to working in science, she says: “The fact is, you can’t make luck happen. So my advice is, work in an area you love. If nothing else, you get to go to work every day and enjoy what you’re doing.”
Here is an edited version of our conversation:

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