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P. aeruginosa use phenazines to breathe in low-oxygen environments, like the mucus-filled lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. With no phenazines available, the bacteria form shriveled colonies (front, center) so that every bacterium has access to oxygen.
Around that time, a senior student in the lab, who had gone all over Boston collecting bacteria that could metabolize high concentrations of arsenic, cleared off her desk. “She gave me one of her bottles of bacteria that was destined to be thrown away,” says Newman. “And it was this really bright yellow color, and the only thing I knew how to do—from my materials science background—was to figure out what compound was making it yellow.”
That's how Newman stumbled upon the molecules that allow bacteria to metabolize metals. These colorful compounds guided her budding career. But the real pivot point came when Morel moved his lab from MIT to Princeton. Though Newman had planned on only getting a master's degree and then pursuing patent law, she decided to accompany him and finish her Ph.D., for the fun of it. “I was doing things because I enjoyed them and I was lucky because the rest just took care of itself,” Newman says.
She started seeking out courses in genetics and quickly saw its potential for studying bacterial processes. Newman's teacher of one short course, “Advanced Bacterial Genetics” at Cold Spring Harbor, was Bonnie Bassler, now an HHMI investigator at Princeton. Bassler says Newman caught her attention with her incredible energy.
“She came with little background in genetics but she knew she wanted to learn it. She was incredibly hard working, and unflappable. After long days of working and studying, everyone else would be too exhausted to move, and she'd bound out the door to go on a jog.”
That vitality and enthusiasm hasn't faded; Newman's lab members nicknamed her “The Catalyst” (like an enzyme that increases the rate of a chemical reaction). “She injects energy into any project,” keeping the lab both fun and successful, says graduate student Alexa Price-Whelan. “Even when she was exhausted on maternity leave, she'd come into the lab and have more energy than the rest of us combined.”
Every lab member likes to mention the lab bench with Newman's name on it, a rarity among investigators who have teams of students to collect data for them. Though the countertop has become a storage area for unneeded equipment, Newman insists that the area is hers, and she plans to hunker down at the bench any day. “She wants to be right there in the thick of things, getting her hands dirty,” says Paula Welander, another postdoctoral fellow in the lab. “We tease her about her lab bench a lot, but really it's very inspiring.”
The 36-year old Newman exudes not only energy, but confidence. She could easily be mistaken for a graduate student: small with dark, untamed hair and glasses perched on her nose, she's dressed casually in brown and orange earth tones, except for a purple plastic watch. But she owns her lab like no graduate student could. At a recent lab meeting, midsentence talking about geology, she leans her chair back and rests her clog-adorned feet on the conference table. She's perfectly at home here, leading a lab.
Her one-year old son Ronen occasionally makes the lab his home too. A pile of stuffed animals and a rubber duck sit on Newman's office floor next to a thick textbook entitled “Principles and Applications of Aquatic Chemistry.” Although married to inorganic chemist Jonas Peters, she says science talk is rare at home—especially now, with the baby dominating their time. “Once in a blue moon we'll talk about science,” she says. “Whenever I have a grant application that requires complex chemical structures, he double checks to make sure I've drawn the bonds right. Sometimes he just draws them for me.”
Photo: Lars Dietrich / Newman lab