Julie Overbaugh, Ph.D.
Scientist, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
For many scientists, maintaining a healthy balance in their personal and professional lives is a regular topic of conversation. For Julie Overbaugh, a scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the subject of carving play time out of a frenetic investigative schedule was important enough to warrant a commentary (Nature Vol 477, page 27-28, Sept. 1, 2011).
"It is a constant battle," observes Overbaugh, "but I do believe that in a profession like science, where creativity is important, it is critical to have some balance and some time away from work to stay fresh and maintain creativity."
That may be particularly important in Overbaugh's chosen field: HIV/AIDs, which has absorbed a generation of scientific labors thwarted time and again by one of the most complex and elusive viruses known to mankind. Her work concentrates closely on the immunological factors that could prevent infections. And it entails collaborating with epidemiologists and clinical scientists in Kenya, which has been hit hard by AIDS.
"I think my (career) path was a bit more of a ramble compared to many scientists," she adds. "I went to graduate school in biochemistry, not really having a frame of reference for where that path would go. I found that while I enjoyed the challenges of scientific discovery, I could only find a tenuous link between my work and having an impact on people's lives directly. I felt that I wanted my work to have an impact on health. So, I looked for opportunities to do research more relevant to public health and my path evolved over time to include more and more focus on translational research. Some of this was serendipity, as it happened that HIV was discovered during the time I was emerging from my ramble and I happened to be in a position to contribute in that area."
Overbaugh's contributions extend beyond strict lab and field work. She's been cited for taking the time to mentor others, another unexpected delight that helps make the lab a far more rewarding place than she had ever imagined.
"Well, for one thing, it is mostly fun and let's face it, having a fun job is what most of us want. The students I train are very talented, some of the cream of the crop, and it is fun to watch them develop and spread their wings. There is so much satisfaction in watching this process and in trying to figure out ways to augment and support it, especially because each trainee is so different. I also enjoy people. I would have never thought that being a scientist who runs a lab would be such a people-oriented job, but it is. And that is an aspect of my work that really suits my personality."