• Claire Benjamin

Rachel Whitaker: An evolutionary career

When microbiologist Rachel Whitaker (BCXT) graduated from college, she didn’t know if she wanted to be a teacher or a researcher. So, like any good scientist, she tested her hypotheses.

Through AmeriCorps Vista, she helped kids K-2 learn to read as a program coordinator for S.M.A.R.T (Start Making a Reader Today), a statewide reading program in Oregon.

Then to try research science, she worked for three years as a researcher in a cancer immunology lab at Providence Medical Center in Portland Oregon. Although laboratory science won her heart, the medical sciences did not particularly appealed to her. So she went back to the drawing board.

At the library, Whitaker poured over scientific literature to see what scientific field intrigued her. That day, she happened to read an issue of Science on microbial biology, featuring Carl Woese’s discovery of archaea.

“I was interested in a lot of different things, but as soon as I read that article, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” she said. “How would you not want to study the third domain of life? I never looked back.”

At this point, Whitaker had been out of school for five years. But in retrospect, she said this break helped rather than hurt her career. As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, she wrote her own grant proposals and conducted an independent research project funded by NASA. After she earned her doctorate in microbiology, she worked for a year as a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley before landing her dream job as an Assistant Professor in the Microbiology Department at the University of Illinois.

Since then, the field has been rapidly evolving.

“When I started in grad school, we were just starting to understand the diversity of microorganisms,” she said. “Now, thanks to genomics, we have come to realize the uniqueness of the Archaeal domain particularly in terms of basic DNA processes like DNA replication, repair and recombination. By examining genomes in natural populations, we have learned how these processes affect the evolution of microbial diversity. And, not only is there this amazing diversity in microbes, but there is also ten times more diversity in viruses of microbes. This whole other world is opening up.”

Through her work at the IGB, she studies evolutionary dynamics in Archaeal genomes and compares how viruses interact with microbes and evolve over time through experimental evolution and environmental genomics.

“It’s just amazing to me how little we know about natural variation and coevolution of viruses of microbes,” Whitaker said.

At the Institute for Universal Biology, housed at the IGB, she is also joining forces with an interdisciplinary group that is working together to pick up where Woese left off, studying how life began and has since evolved.

Her work has truly come full circle since she picked up that issue of Science featuring Woese.

As Woese served as a role model for generations of scientists who have admired his unique perspective and tenacity, Whitaker will undoubtedly serve as a role model for future scientists: She doggedly pursued her dream of being a scientist, achieved tenure while raising a family, and continues to serve as an example of a successful woman in a STEM field saturated by men.

“A lot of people ask me often if I’m a role model,” Whitaker said. “I don’t think so because everybody has to develop a career in science in his or her own way. The only thing I would say is you can do it! In your own way, you can do it.”

Whitaker studied biology at Wesleyan University and went on to earn her doctorate in microbiology from the University of California, Berkeley.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology newsletter.