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Phenazines also affect whether P. aeruginosa can form biofilms—colonies of bacteria encased in a slimy goop of extracellular matrix. Bacteria banded together into biofilms exist on unbrushed teeth, on slimy rocks, and in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. Since bacteria in the deepest layers of the biofilms don't have access to oxygen, they need phenazines to breathe. In the bacterial strain that Dietrich has blocked from making phenazines, the colonies form not smooth films but curly, bumpy, surprisingly predictable shapes that expose every bacterium to oxygen. It's another finding that links back to cystic fibrosis: if the bacteria without phenazines can't form normal biofilms when oxygen is limited, they can't survive in mucus-filled lungs as easily.
Morel says Newman's diverse background is what allows her to make these imaginative connections. “Her background gives her a lot of different things to think about when she looks at a problem,” he says. Ask Newman how she's come to make such creative connections in her work, and she brings it back to her parents: “I have to credit them as people who always appreciated new things and encouraged my wide-ranging interests.” On weekends they drove her to high school debate tournaments, and helped her track down materials for science fair projects that emitted horrible noises from the basement, which she says they tolerated happily.
The way she charts her own path is a lesson that resonates strongly in her students. Tanja Bosak, one of Newman's first students at Caltech and now an assistant professor at MIT, says she tries to model parts of her own lab after Newman's.
“She let me really develop my own project the way I wanted but was always there to support me and answer questions,” explains Bosak. “She taught me that you can have fun and do science. And that it's really important to run a lab the way you want—you don't have to try to be something you're not.”
Whether it's the quick switch from English to Spanish to order a sandwich from a Latino cashier at an MIT café, her ability to bridge geology and microbiology, or juggling her work life and home life, Newman moves with ease across several worlds.
“She's gone from being a student, when I first met her, to the head of a huge lab and a leader in her field,” says Bassler. “But to me she seems exactly the same as that day she walked into Cold Spring Harbor. Her science has certainly grown and changed, but in her spirit, she's one of the brightest lights in the bacterial community. Her modesty and enthusiasm and talent are always a breath of fresh air.”
As for the future, Newman hesitates to predict where her next research projects will take her, beyond the obvious continuation of her foray into cystic fibrosis. “My hope is that in the longer term, my research will take me in directions I can't even imagine now,” she says, “because that's what makes this so fun.”