Carlos Bustamante remembers the moment well. It was a summer morning in 1964, and he was going through some of his father's books. He noticed one that happened to be written by a Spanish scientist, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who received the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his work in determining the structure of the nervous system.
"This was a major turning point in my life," Bustamante says. "I had a sense of inadequacy because the only scientists I knew about until then had foreign names, which did not resonate to my Spanish ears."
Ramón y Cajal certainly could not have anticipated his future as a role model for an inquisitive teenage boy in Peru, but it is a role that Bustamante has understood and accepted as he has built his own academic and research career. "I do not consider myself an activist, but I am aware of what listening to me may mean to Hispanic students," says Bustamante, an HHMI investigator at the University of California, Berkeley. "Many times, they have come up to me after a lecture and expressed their joy in hearing science spoken about with a Spanish accent."
When he was teaching at the University of New Mexico in the mid-1980s, Bustamante inspired a generation of native Spanish-speaking students, many of whom were the first in their families to attend college. To him, these students represented the first link in what might become a family chain of professional achievement. "In most cases," he says, "the educational success of one child had a positive effect on the other children in the family, who then sought some sort of professional degree or certificate of their own."
Nor is Bustamante's symbolic significance limited to Hispanic students. Trained in both physics and biochemistry, he has carved out as distinctive a research career as curiosity, opportunity and technology allowed. "There was no clear pathway for me," he says. "I came to biophysics haphazardly." Now, in this "new era of biophysics," he advises nine biophysics graduate students in his laboratories in the physics and biology departments at UC Berkeley and has helped design a curriculum that exposes physics majors to biology and vice versa, with mathematics courses as the common bond.
Says Bustamante with confidence, "These students are becoming the phenotype for the biophysicist of the future, the ones who will deal at a completely quantitative level with biological problems." Moreover, these future scientists could be the vanguard in a transformation of biology from an organic to a synthetic science. "It's clear," he explains, "that in time we will stop studying what is and start building what is not."
In the meantime, Bustamante continues to hone his own teaching techniques. "I always have been in love with learning," he says, "so when I first started teaching, I assumed everyone else had the same feeling. I eventually learned that many people are afraid, so I think it is important to offer equal parts of enthusiasm and reassurance."
Photo: ©The Nobel Foundation
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Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
May 2001, pages 18-21.
©2001 Howard Hughes Medical Institute