In this episode we wrap up our interview with retired geneticist and biology professor, Dr. Olivia Masih White. We talk about her work with the Human Genome Project, her experiences with diversity in science, and her thoughts on religion and biology.
Hi, I'm Renee. Hi, I'm Sam and this is laboratory podcast.
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recorded interviews of emeritus and retired scientists on the evolution and history of scientific research throughout their careers. Welcome back to lab oratory podcasts. This week we are finishing up our episode of Olivia White, Part two of our Interview that we started last week and it is now March. Happy March. Happy Women's History Month everybody. What better way to under it than by this lovely finale to her interview with Olivia White? She's got some pretty good things to say. I can't wait to get into it. But first, Rene, what are we going to do today? Today we are headed to see Education Association s e a down the road of wood Soul road to go talk to the current students and staff about the podcast and about my experiences with S E A. And what led us to doing this project and kind of the steps and turns and tumbles we've taken since starting it to start some communication. This was an experience that evolved from our ocean sciences meeting, talking to some of the folks there, some excited to go talk to these students and hopefully get some insight and grow a little bit more. Yes, it'll be exciting to share and explain what we've been doing and keep getting better at presenting in front of people. But what Renee hasn't mentioned is that part of S E A meant that she got to sail on a tall ship, not once, but ways. Sam calls me a pirate. She is a pirate. She's a science pirate. They were probably hopefully gonna upload pictures of her on the What's the ship's name? The Court Kramer odds. Anyways, that's where we're heading today. And we're gonna jump right back into where we left off with Olivia's interview, and we're going to start with a quick recap with where we were. We left off. While she had just started working with the Human Genome Project during this project, not only was she part of this monumental undertaking, but she also made low lasting personal and scientific connections, some of what she still keeps in touch with To this day and auspiciously as its female history month, Olivia goes on to talk about female role models in science and how proud she was of the scientific community for recognizing that they needed to step up their game to place women in places that they had previously not yet been.
It was interesting that when I switched from immunology to genetics because I did not get the immunologist I wanted. So when I was studying and finishing my PhD that were too geneticist and one of the gentleman who was a major professor and he, uh I've got my degree September. Then he left. So there was only one person who was left a sort of has a mentor. And the year I finished my Ph. D. He was gonna go to Texas A and M for his sabbatical. So I graduated in August, and they hired me to teach there in September to fill in while he's gone for his sabbatical. So I started teaching and teaching genetics and general biology. Second year, he decided not to come back and extend another year, so I taught for the second year also. Well, after two years, he got the permanent position, a Texas E. And I mean, he never came back, and I got his position, and I stayed there for 20 years. But while I was there, it was at that time were, uh, Watson and Crick. They were talking about that. We really need to do Human Genome Project, which means that we need to look that by then we had discovered that all of the genetic information is in the d n A. So is there some way we can take the human DNA and actually map it? So how much what What do we have in it in that language? So they call it is Human Genome Project so we can figure out what our what is the human genome looks like. So they applied and they went to the government and ah Watson in and they said, you know, we need the money, and I'm forgetting the amount of money is to how many thousands of dollars gonna cost to do the Human Genome project. And, ah, the Congress voted on it. And I remember at that time L gore was one of the senator and and they said, Al Gore, I think it is the question. Okay, we're going to give you so many millions dollar to do the human genome to map the human genome. They're going to be a lot off. Legal and ethical and social implications will come out that if you have this information, are you going to be use it for personal benefit, or are you know you're going to the misuse It so said we should have some money available in there that, besides doing the Human Genome Project, you need to look at all the ethical, social legal implications off it. So they call it Elsie Fun, and they designated 5 to 10 10% of money that will be just looking at the ethical socially implication. And then people from different university could apply for that money and look into it and then send that data. So part of the money came to Texas, and I was one of the person that was involved in the LC project, as they call it, and we used to go to regular meetings, and we will try to raise what may be the ethical questions if I can find out is this is a gene that causes the disease, then convey yank that disease out, and who can yank it out? Those who are rich and you have the money for those who don't have, you know, those kind of fish is that we will come with a lot of different scenarios. So that was part that I was involved in.
And you're doing that while you are teaching at Texas.
I was teaching at University of North Texas. That was part of the things. And I also remember it was at the same time that we had a meeting and, uh, we were meeting in Houston and they looked into there were different groups that, like 15 committees and all of those air attending were sent to 2 15 committees. Every committee cheer was a male. So there were some women scientists, the senior scientist. Then I was because I was just a very young professor. At that time, the objected they said that I think that there is in equity here. We don't see any women as, ah, chair off any of the committee and ah says that we need to change that. So Of course, these guys get together and he said you were going to change and we will put some women as to chair different committees. And, you know, chairing a committee doesn't mean you need to know everything, but it's you just cheering. And you were facilitating the discussion going on. So they asked me to chair a committee. I was petrified. I was petrified. And it just so happened that they asked me Thio the committee, Um, the guy who's from the National Science Foundation, What's his name? Francis Collins. Francis Collins was in my committee and he said next to me and I said, You know, I'm just here Are these noble Laurie, the famous professor? Then I'm chairing the committee and he leaned remains. Did Olivia. All you have to do is you just need to facilitate a discussion. You will be fine. And I still remember how he mentored me through that process in
It could do that. You don't have to know
everything in a so I do remember taking part. But I'd really was very proud of those few senior female faculty member that they saw that there were no female chair that they need to do make something about that. So said they did that.
And just for to clarify this is from Texas that said that or the whole genome projects
that this was our group in Texas, you know, because we had certain amount of money that was given to Texas, and we're looking at it. But of course, we can invite the people from all over the country. So, for example, at that time, and I think that Francis calling at that time was at Michigan, he wasn't at and I said that time he was in Mission.
That's exciting. Oh, I love that story. Do you remember any or are you able to share any? Um, I don't know, special meetings where something came up like him Just looking for any kind of like we talked about this. And I remember that that was kind of a big debate or something that came up in a meeting that surprised or shocked to you,
you know? No, I don't even driven. But any content of that meeting as to what happened? Because I was still so petrified I could see some of the people who were there, but for the content. In that time, I
couldn't remember way understood. I feel that way and some of the meetings I go to now and people are like, What do you think Rananim like, um, I think I should not be in this room right now, but, hey, that imposter syndrome and gone in May. So you mentioned Francis Collins a few times. Have you remained connected with certain people that you've worked with in the lab through the years?
Well, uh, yes, I have an especially since you talked about Francis Collins. I did connect stay in touch with Francis Collins because when he became the head of the N i h er in our room, I'm a member of United Church of Christ, which is one of the very progressive denomination. And we have a science and technology group. And I was part of the science and Technology group and we would meet regularly a different places. And when here the meeting was in Ba tester Maryland, and I wrote to Francis Colin and I told him, and I said that our church group is coming, and we're looking in science technology shoes that anyway, that I can bring my group over and you can show us the lab. And what's happening, he said, would love to. And he hosted us. We went to N I H. And they treated us with pizza for lunch, which saw all of the lab. And, you know, I still have pictures of it. Francis and me and my gang. Or, you know, So I stayed in touch with him. Yeah, so and you know, he's he's still considered to me, is his good
friend. So please forgive me. What is n I. H.
A national Institute of however it's hell, yes, it's ah, read the Washington itself nationally funded. So
lots of folks get money through an eye age to be able to do scientific research. Beautiful. Oh, I like that. I have some research to d'oh. So many actors get is yes. So shout out to Francis Collins and all the work that the National Institute of Health is doing to help benefit our human society. And speaking of society, Olivia discusses at length what it was like for her as a woman of color in the science community and in the world, and how she believes and has studied in the end. We are all human when
I first started teaching, and I think I told you that that were two female when I came there as a graduate student, one who did not have appeared today and all she got to teach with freshman biology to education Major and the other one's immunologist. She had a PhD and she was let go. So when I got there, I was the first here to the female and a person of color, because this year I come from India. So, uh, you know, there was no racial, a cz a matter of fact there were, Ah, all of the scientists were white male, And I can't tell you how many times women will come up to me and say So good to see you as a female sign scientist teaching us because maybe there's hope that someday I could be a scientist and I also remember anecdote where I had a friend and, uh, she said, You know, all my students she was teaching in a junior high school that they always think off that yes, them what is a scientist? And they'll always draw a picture of a white male in a white lab coat. That's what a scientist it. So she said, Would you mind coming to my class and talk to my students? And I still remember going to some of these junior high class and I would put on my lab coat, even though you don't have to have a lab coat to go out with on. Say that you know I'm a scientist so they can see that that you could be a woman and a person of color and still be a scientist.
Yeah, and it's amazing. I have a few friends who do that here in foul myth with some of the schools, and so she would go visit the third graders and the teacher before Henry be like, Oh, the scientist is coming to visit it on Lee used the term of the scientist is visiting on Wednesday, and they were all draw pictures of what the scientist was going to look like and how more and more you're getting, folks, you're getting kids drop pictures of women and you're getting kids or people of color and different ages and scientists who look different. And so when Katie would go into the classroom kitchen Look, I knew it was gonna be a girl scientist. Like, Look, I do this. So it is really fun to see the fact that I've heard similar anecdotes to that and seeing that kids are now drawing pictures of female scientists and people are now seeing themselves as that because they have an old models. Exactly. Ah, I have a quick question. Um uh, in your younger years or any any other. Um, I guess, years Have you ever experienced any kind of discrimination against who you are as a scientist or,
you know, I am one of the considered myself. It's a lucky one because I know too many a times that I've been asked, you know, as a foreigner's if you had experiences. When I first came, I came and I stayed with one of the faculty members the at the university in SM, you white family. I lived with them, so my experience was always living with white American family. Then I married a white male. So all my in laws and ah, now, speaking of discrimination, if you're living in the South and I did experiences and I do remember going from Texas to Louisiana where I used the colored bathroom because of your person of color, we had separate water fountain. And yes, I've used the colored bathroom or I have gone in the restaurant where they will not accept people of color. So where I was not served? Yeah, but those were such few and far in between because I always live in academic community. So I really did not have that kind of experience, but, uh, a department. The person who was the chairman of my department, he was, and I always in my 20 years of teaching, I always wore my sorry when I was teaching I because I wanted to. I wanted to be proud off my nationality that I come from India. So I always wore my sorry places much cheaper, that that to dress an Indian sari than to buy new clothes. But he always used to say that Hasn't she bean here long enough in this country to start wearing American clothes Or, you know, he was had never given me any raises. And he so that chairman of the department was, uh, you know, not very friendly. But then I lucked out that after he left I got a new chairman of the department who was an Irishman here, Told me he was one of and I will say that that sometimes we try to say that, you know, all white faculty members were bad, but he was one of the best one. And he became a good friend, and he knew that I had the lowest salary that anybody else and we had travel budget that everybody have $500 you can do for travel. If you spend more than $500 travel, that's it. It comes out of your pocket when you can go to the national meeting for $500 all the time, I will go to three meetings a year. Sometimes I will spend as much at 1500 or $2000. He paid all my travel bills from his grand What is a I never had to see you go, but we have to go so he because he knew I was making lower salary than everybody else, that he was so supportive and he said, Don't you ever stop wearing your sorrys? You grace our halls of it, the dignity. So you know, there were very good people that who were good mentors and supporters that supported me.
That's crazy. Those people were around. Yes. Oh, you might have had some folks that were in a supportive. Yeah, it's also beautiful that you said strong. I mean, you have such a great energy, and I wish I could share it with everyone who's listening. But I So everyone's bringing tears to my eyes that you stood strong. You were You're sorry you were who you were. I think that's so beautiful. And I just hope the other women and people that can't do that they feel that strength
Well, one of the thing I always thought of that. You know, I'm just not a biology professor, so I I go there and I'm teaching them biology. But I dont wanted them to understand that our people who come from different country, that we are all human because that's one of the thing that I still to this day find very difficult for people to say that you know, I am white American. I am superior than you Indian who come from there. And I won't everybody to know we are human. We are 99.9% alike. When you speak of genetic and I'll tell you another story that I always use this example of that we are 99.9 alike. Genetically speaking, we have more in common. The skin color differences. So so much less than anything else but my daughter. And she was here. I think she was a grad student. I can't remember, but it PBS have the Siri's. Um what did you talk about? This. I believe and And I'll have to give you a context where you can look it up where it said that you write in a 500 words What do you believe in? And it's a contest. And there are books published first Dave as all important people, you know? What do you believe in? People did that and then they open it to public. And my daughter wrote a color while she was here at Woods Hole. And, uh, she won't. He got elected and she got, like, $250 for that, and I still remember, and she told me that she had been accepted, and it's gonna be published sometime. But I remember a friend of mine calling me he said. Olivia, you're not going to believe it. I was just driving on a highway and I had to pull it over because I heard this voice and this girl on the radio saying, My mother is a geneticist and she says that every human being is 99.9% ally. And so I said, That sounds like Sherry And he said I had to listen to that story and and she was really talking about how we're alike and how she came out as a lesbian. And, you know, her story was beautiful, so you'll have to, really. But But even back then that she remembered that I had talked about the similarity is what it is. Mine, said six via we're all human.
So while diversity in science is not something that we have magically fixed over the last many years, it is something that scientists are well aware of and are trying to alleviate what can be a fairly homogeneous field as a whole. It's really nice to see this where at Ocean Sciences earlier this month, last month last month, it is March, Um, there's a lot of sessions on diversity in science and what we, as researchers and educators can do to help inspire and welcome folks from various backgrounds to this field where anybody truly is a scientist in anyone can and should be able to pursue this line of work if they want to. I really like this story about the expecting a scientist and how Children will draw a scientist, and it's edging away from man in white lab coat and how now we're being constantly surprised about our expectations of who is in that white lab coat. Yeah, even where the way they even wear one. Um So as we start to wrap up Olivia's interview now, she leaves us with a few really well thought out ideas, some on her views of her religion and biology and others being advice for upcoming scientists.
When I was teaching, I hit several encounter with the parents off my student because they couldn't believe that I was teaching about evolution, he said. How could you believe in evolution and be a good Christian? And, uh, and I said, I don't take my Bible literally. You know, it's a gradual process, And so, yes, in my teaching thing that even though that that I am a person of faith. I do not take Bible literally. And, uh so I I believe in the science and could that I could teach. But I had several parents or students really heavy there very narrow view of what should be an especially living in Texas. And back then, they were even talking about. We should not teach evolution in school. And if we're going to teach evolution, we should also talk about the the biblical view of how the world was created. And so
do you think that they should both be taught in the same lesson?
No, no. There's no place for a religious studies to be in the biology class. No.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with us? Serve any any anecdotes or anything off the top of your head?
Well, you know, I I really appreciate the opportunity because some of the things that I had taken for granted people just really don't realize that. So I hope that my sharing my experiences will help others that things that don't ever take things for granted because things are not easy as it may be. And if experiences from my life could be helpful to somebody. I think that that will be wonderful. I hope it wasn't boring, but I really enjoyed
Olivia, your interview is anything but boring. It was a really big honor to interview you and get to know your story. I'm really grateful for you're sharing it with us. Yeah, it was the first interview. I think that both Sam and I got slightly emotional while talking to Olivia. And I think that this was mainly because of her well thought out discussion on diversity on women in science, the twists and turns she took to get to where she was. It was really inspiring. And she was so animated and thrilled to be talking about her life story. I think the part that definitely got me the most was how she had this champion who was telling her to be who she Woz and where what she wanted and just never, never let that go. Don't let the naysayers bring her down, because I mean, growing up, I've heard a lot of Oh, you're in this country. You should act like it. And I have always had a problem with that because I had learned that were this great American melting pot, not homogenize. We are really supposed to be celebrated for all of our differences. So that's what I believe and just never found it. Okay for people to say that Yeah, and her experience with the Human Genome Project was so interesting because she had colleagues that recognized this and imagining her leading these sessions and giving these presentations and feeling out of her element. I can relate to that all too well, but seeing where that got her and seeing the confidence that that gave her for the future was really wonderful. I think it all wraps up so beautifully, too, because as a geneticist, she captain on saying we are all at our cellular level, 99.9% the same. So I think it's so well full circled here in the entirety of who we're talking about, what we're talking about, the scientific world, diversity. And really, at the end of the day, we're all the same, and studies have shown that so it's kind of interesting from a scientific versus a human aspect of how it all relates to each other and what we put on all of our labels, I guess. Yeah, completely. So. Thank you, Olivia. Again. So much for sharing your journey with us. It's been an honor and
a privilege. So, guys, guess what way are still a new podcast? Yeah. So
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