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Vosshall’s discovery of a unique olfactory system for insects was a bonanza, she says. “The fact that the target proteins are only present in insects is a huge convenience.” It means scientists will be able to prevent and reduce mosquito biting in a way that should have no effect on humans. To move in that direction, she is collaborating with Bayer CropScience in Germany to devise an insect repellant that blocks the insect’s ability to smell. The goal is to find a product as effective as DEET that is longer lasting, less oily, less toxic, and safe enough to use on infants.
Vosshall says she has always preferred working at the fringes of science, where the questions are most interesting and least explored. Her rule of thumb for whether to pursue a specific scientific inquiry: unless precisely three laboratories are already working on it, forget it. More than three and the topic is already too popular for her. Fewer and there aren’t enough colleagues who are knowledgeable about the subject with whom she can exchange ideas.
When she studied the function of insect odorant receptors, for instance, the only other people she says were working on the problem were Kazushige Touhara in Tokyo and Bill Hansson in Germany, both of whom she eventually collaborated with. “When the field gets very large,” she says, “collaborations become harder to arrange, and secrecy is more of a barrier.”
Vosshall’s outsider status goes back to childhood. She was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, the eldest of three children of nomadic, adventurous parents. Before she was eight years old, she had moved six times to four countries, going back to Switzerland every summer for family vacations crammed into a bare-bones shack high in the Swiss Alps. On the first day of third grade in suburban New Jersey, where the Vosshalls finally settled, young Leslie didn’t speak a word of English. She picked it up quickly—she’s pure New Yorker now—but she always held on to that feeling of being just outside the normal flow of things.
“Even in high school she was fairly counterculture,” says her sister, Nicki Dugan, a public relations executive in San Francisco. “We spent a lot of time poring through the Salvation Army men’s department looking for ties and David Byrne–style big jackets. She tended to want to stand out.”
Stylistically, Dugan says, Vosshall was into angular haircuts, multiple ear piercings, and hair dyed colors that nature never intended. As a young teenager she spent weekend afternoons exploring Manhattan on her own, and took solo summer trips, first to Greece and then to Cape Cod. It was during two summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where she worked for her uncle, Philip Dunham of Syracuse University, that she fell in love with science.
“Mainstream was just taboo for Leslie,” says her sister. But even though Vosshall favored the punk scene and avant-garde music, she was an attentive student who graduated in 1983 as valedictorian at Kinnelon High School. She chose Columbia over the other Ivy League schools she could have attended, partly because she liked being in its pioneering first coed class, and partly because it was in New York, a city she always wanted to live in and now can’t imagine leaving.
From Columbia, where she majored in biochemistry, Vosshall went to Rockefeller University for her doctorate, where she studied circadian rhythms in the fruit fly. “Even back then she was fearless,” says Marina Picciotto, a close friend from graduate school who is now a professor of psychiatry, neurobiology, and pharmacology at Yale School of Medicine. “In every interaction you ever have with Leslie, she’s always herself, always speaks her mind.” Picciotto and Vosshall have remained close friends, both married to neuroscientists and with children about the same age. Sometimes the families attend scientific conferences together, so one of the parents can take the kids to the zoo while the other three attend the scientific sessions.