‘You Need To Find Your Comfort Level’

His faculty advisor didn't pay any attention to him in college, so he figured it out on his own. Now, he's an award-winning biology researcher.


E Peter Greenberg is the Eugene and Martha Nester Endowed Professor of Microbiology in the Department of Microbiology and the Molecular & Cellular Biology Program at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He is also a 2023 Canada Gairdner International Award laureate for his pioneering work in understanding how bacteria communicate via a chemical language.

We asked him about everything from his love of travel to his missed opportunity as a Major League Baseball third baseman in the hopes of giving you a better understanding of what goes on outside the lab for one of the best minds in research.

What do you like most about being a researcher?

I love discovering things nobody ever knew before. I love the process, the scientific method. I love being able to focus my curiosity-driven energy on something I find fascinating and learning more and more about it.

What advice would you give young researchers?

I don’t really have any great words of wisdom. You have to find what you enjoy because it is a labour of love. Different researchers have different views on how far out on the horizon a potential application might be. You need to find your comfort level. Don’t decide not to do something because you might not succeed.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As a high school student I was very bored and I certainly did not apply myself. I did become fascinated with the invertebrate creatures that live in tide pools and I decided to go to college and become a marine biologist. I did apply myself and I paid attention in college. I had an opportunity to work in a research lab. My faculty advisor didn’t pay any attention to me and I had to figure things out for myself. I loved being in the lab. The die was cast.

What do you like to do for fun?

What I like to do for fun has changed over the decades of my life. Now I am too old to do things like ski with reckless abandon. So travel adventures have become a favourite activity. I have been fortunate to be able to spend time in Asia (business and pleasure), I can’t get enough of the parts of Africa I have visited. There are still many places I want to go.

What’s your favourite cuisine?

That depends on the day. There is almost nothing I don’t like. I am a pretty adventurous eater. When I am traveling, of course I like to eat local favorites.

If you could do any profession other than your own what would it be?

When I was younger, I used to ponder that question. Put another way — what would I want to do if what I was doing was taken away from me? What if I didn’t get a faculty position after graduate school and a postdoctoral, what if I didn’t get tenure, etc. All of my answers were a joke. One of my jokes when people asked how I became a microbiologist was to say I wanted to be a Major League Baseball third baseman, but I am left handed. Maybe I managed to find the one thing I am good at and that is what I do.

If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be and why?

Oh, that is a bit of a twist on the classic question — who would you like to have dinner with? There are some people I would have liked to meet to do them harm (and I am NOT a violent person). You can imagine a list of names. But who would I like to sit down with for a chat? Marie Curie would be interesting. Galileo the helical scientist who put the Sun at the centre of our solar system and not Earth. The heretic in me might like to have a sit down with Jesus and find out his story as told by him.

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