Science and serendipity

Laboratory bioscientist Babs Marrone learns the value of team building and taking scientific risks

September 20, 2023

Babs Marrone
Babs Marrone.

By Babs Marrone.

I was twenty years into a successful career in biology when I decided to change direction, for the second time. Having grown up in lush, green New England, my garden in New Mexico could never quite compare, and I had grown acutely aware of the impacts of drought on my environment. I began to think more about the existential threat of climate change. As a human on this planet, I could see the looming crisis for everyone. But as a human scientist on this planet, I wanted to do something to help. Serendipitously, my colleagues at Los Alamos were talking about building a biofuels program, so I embraced the opportunity to jump in.

My work in the biological sciences until that point had spanned neuroscience to DNA sequencing to bioforensics, and my expertise in a technique called flow cytometry had been an essential tool for each of these endeavors. I saw ways flow cytometry would be an asset to developing biofuels, and I was eager to develop the technology to do it. My jump into biofuels was in about 2008, and since that time, we’ve made a lot of progress in the field. But the truth is that the challenge of climate change and transitioning to clean energy will take technologies that have not yet even been invented.

I worked on the Human Genome Project (HGP) when I first came to Los Alamos in the mid-1980s. Thinking about it now, I see a lot of parallels between where we were at the start of the HGP and where we are today, beginning our transition away from fossil fuels. I really feel like we are at a tipping point. In the 1980s, we knew we needed a cultural revolution in biology to embark on sequencing the genome, but we also knew that we did not have the tools and technologies in hand to complete the work. Somehow, with national labs, universities, industry, and the government pulling together, we succeeded—in part by developing novel technologies along the way.

I see us in a similar situation now, with goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to limit the course of climate change. We have started this process with the science and technologies available today, but we must continue to create new technologies to get us to net zero emissions. We must be receptive to new perspectives and opportunities, and remember that science can be transformed in ways that we have not yet envisioned. Creating a sustainable future where the bioeconomy (making products using biology) will play a central role will be another all-hands-on-deck effort. We can’t take our foot off of the innovation pedal; there is too much at stake.

Should I stay or should I go?

I came to Los Alamos in 1985 to join a burgeoning neuroscience group in the Life Sciences (now Bioscience) Division. I had already begun to establish my research in neuroendocrinology; I was evaluating a class of cells in the female reproductive system and their role in hormone production. I had read about a technology developed at Los Alamos in the 1960s called flow cytometry and I immediately saw how I could apply it to my project. Flow cytometry is a technique that analyzes and sorts single cells, and it would give me a way to quickly characterize the cells I needed to study at different stages of their development.

> Read the rest of Babs’ story in the Laboratory’s 1663 science magazine.