Happy International Women’s Day! In honour of the day I’d like to tell you a bit about one of my favourite female scientists, an inspiring immunologist called Polly Matzinger.
I first learned about Polly Matzinger in a sleepy afternoon immunology lecture in my second year of university. Just as my attention was beginning to drift I was pulled back to the room by an unusual phrase to hear in an immunology lecture: ‘Playboy bunny’. The lecturer was talking about Polly Matzinger. She originally studied music at university and went on to a series of odd jobs including working as a cocktail waitress and a stint as a playboy bunny. It when she was working as a waitress near the University of California in Davis that she met a young professor who, sparked by an insightful question from Matzinger, embarked on a 9 month campaign bringing her scientific papers and encouraging her to study further. She eventually did, gaining a bachelor’s degree and a PhD. Dr. Matzinger has said that she owes that man her life (1).
She had a strong start to her career, making waves early on. Uncomfortable with writing in the first person, ‘I did this’,something which is frowned on in scientific papers, she needed a co-author to say ‘We did this’ instead. Lacking an actual co-author she referenced her dog instead. Needless to say the publishers were not pleased when they found out.
As she studied, Dr Matzinger became less and less satisfied with the framework for understanding the immune system at the time. The accepted view was called the ‘self/non-self model’: your immune system attacks anything that is not part of you, invaders like bacteria and viruses, and leaves the rest unharmed. After a lot of thought Matzinger proposed the ‘Danger Model’. That whether something is part of you or a foreign invader doesn’t matter, it will be accepted by your immune system until it starts causing problems which are flagged up by ‘danger’ signals from your body, like DNA where it shouldn’t be. This is a shift in how to look at things rather than a whole new system, but it helped to explain some mysteries, like why a mother’s immune system doesn’t attack a growing foetus. Still, it was and remains controversial; most students are taught a mix of the two theories. Dr Matzinger also headed the ‘Ghost lab’ at the National Institute of Allergy and Disease, nicknamed because it stood empty for its first 9 months as she studied chaos theory. It was officially named the ‘T-cell Tolerance and Memory Section Laboratory of Immunogenetics’ and stopped running in April 2013.
As we make new discoveries about our immune system some seem to fit better with a ‘self/non-self’ model and some with a ‘Danger model’. However having this new way to view events in our immune system has opened possibilities in our understanding. On top of the science, there are two things I’d like any woman or man reading this to take from this story. The first is the importance of encouraging curiosity. When someone, whether a waitress, a child, a friend or a stranger, asks you an interesting question, share your knowledge and ask for more questions. If you see potential in someone, encourage it. The second is not to be afraid to defy conventions and challenge existing ideas. That’s how the scientific leaders of tomorrow will find their way.