Meet a Member - Barbara Abbott, Teratology Society Councilor

My Career Story by Barbara D. Abbott, PhD abbott.jpg

This brief story recalls my “travels” through a career in science, and summarizes some of the highlights of that journey.  There is also a link to set of slides with illustrations and more details for some of the story.  I think there are three themes that run throughout my career that should be apparent from this “biography”:  1) accumulate amazing mentors, 2) recognize the role of chance in shaping your experience, and 3) enrich your life with the joy that comes from the exuberant practice of your craft.

THE BEGINNING:  I think I always had an interest in science, and I definitely benefitted from the boost in Scientific Education in High School that accompanied our Country’s response to the launch of the satellite Sputnik into low Earth orbit by Russia (yes, I am that old).  I enrolled in the Pre-veterinary program of the School of Agriculture at North Carolina State College (NCSU) in 1962.  At that time North Carolina did not have their own Veterinary school, and those interested in that career would go to NCSU for 2 years and then hope to be one of the very few selected to complete their training at the University of Georgia or Oklahoma State University.  In the slides, you can see that very few women were admitted to NCSU in 1961 (total enrollment was 6944 men and 173 women).  The College had no dormitory for women (you can read on the slide the glowing description of the advantages dormitory housing offered to male students) and female students lived in rented rooms off campus. I was very pleased to participate in an Undergraduate Research Program in the Zoology Department with Dr.John A  Santolucito, (more about him later), where I learned a bit about rat reproduction, histology and the routines of a research lab.  It became apparent that the odds of being selected to continue in a Veterinary program were not good (in an Agricultural College the focus was on large animal practice, and subtle and not so subtle hints were given that women were not suited for this work).  I changed majors and soon after I met and married my husband and we moved to Chicago and began a family (a few pictures on the slide).

FAMILY, WORK, GRADUATE SCHOOL:  I enjoyed being a mother and wife very much, but soon the children were in school all day and I began exploring opportunities to work in a scientific career.  I applied for a position as a laboratory technician at GD Searle, a pharmaceutical company with a research facility near our home.  I am fairly certain that the job offer was strongly influenced by a letter of recommendation from Dr. Santolucito (NCSU). It was very nice of him to write this letter and I was a bit surprised that he remembered me from so long ago (I am grateful to him even to this day).  At GD Searle (you can find more about the company on the slides), I worked with the Virology Group, learning cell culture techniques and soon moved to the Teratology Group where I worked for Dean Rodwell.  I was trained in classic Teratology techniques and the requirements of Segment II testing.  Dean was a wonderful mentor and encouraged me to return to complete my studies (thank you, Dean, I am forever grateful).  I enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University, a very progressive institution at the time as they offered full credit degree coursework in the evenings to working adults.  The timing was perfect, as ~12 years had passed since leaving NCSU and any longer and I would not have been able to transfer the credits toward my BS. After completion of my BS in Biology and Chemistry, I was thrilled to be accepted into the Curriculum in Toxicology at NCSU, where I earned my MS and PhD degrees in Toxicology.  Daniel Grosch was my mentor along with other esteemed Professors at NCSU and UNC (details on the slides).  My Thesis work involved the study of developmental defects of a parthenogenetic Braconid parasitic wasp exposed to volatile agents as it underwent larval development and metamorphogenesis.  This tiny organism is about the size of a stunted fruit fly (see the slide), but was never-the-less a good model for developmental studies.

POSTDOCTORAL PERIOD:  Once again I need to thank a great mentor for being willing to take a chance and give me an opportunity.  Dr. Robert M Pratt, of the Laboratory of Reproductive & Developmental Toxicology at NIEHS, agreed to take me into his program as a Post-Doctoral Fellow.  Even though I had a Thesis describing insect responses to a toxicant, he thought I could contribute to the studies of cleft palate and I was thrilled at the chance to work at this prestigious institute.  (Note: Dr. Pratt introduced me to the Teratology Society and I attended my first meeting as a Student member at Callaway Gardens, Georgia, with his group in 1985).  Our studies explored the mechanisms of cleft palate induction by a variety of teratogens and I acquired skills in morphological, cellular, and molecular level in vivo and in vitro studies using the rodent model.  We also studied human palatal tissues in the organ culture model.  Very soon after joining the lab, I began collaborating with Dr. Linda Birnbaum, who was at the National Toxicology Program at that time.  We examined the mode of action of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) for induction of kidney and palate defects in mice.  I was at NIEHS for 5 years and these were very productive years. 

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR:  In 1990, I interviewed with Dr. Robert Kavlock for a Principal investigator position in the Developmental Toxicology Division at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  I joined the Division in April of 1990 and was grateful for the opportunity to work with this highly regarded research group.  (Note:  in June of 1990, I accompanied the EPA group to the Teratology meeting in Victoria, British Columbia, a fine meeting and memorable location).  At EPA, I was encouraged to continue the cleft palate research and over several years the research expanded to include limb bud, whole embryo culture, and studies of a variety of chemicals of interest to the Agency.  A major initiative at that time and for some years afterward was the development of Biologically-Based Dose-Response Models and I was very interested in this project.  More recently, I worked on defining the mode-of-action for a family of perfluorinated compounds which act through the peroxisome proliferator activator receptors (PPAR-alpha).  Over the 25 years that I have been at EPA, many new technological advances were incorporated into our studies, including knockout mice, in situ hybridization, PCR, gene arrays, laser capture microdissection, confocal microscopy, and we are currently developing 3-D complex cultures of human stem cells to mimic developing embryonic tissues. The next to last slide in the linked file lists some of the many people to whom I owe so much for sharing their knowledge and expertise.  I hope that after reading my story, you can understand that having amazing mentors is very important to your career and that as you advance in your career that you will also take the opportunity to “pay it forward”, helping those whom you supervise, train, and mentor.  Also, there were clearly many stages of my path that involved sheer chance that an opportunity was available at the right time or that just the right person was encountered and that they were willing to listen and assist.  This career can be challenging, frustrating, humbling, but most of all it enriches my life and I hope you can share that experience wherever your career may lead you.

Slide Set: 

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