Judy Lieberman's work has taken her from high-energy physics to a joint position as researcher and physician at New England Medical Center and Tufts University School of Medicine. Like Penny Chisholm, she began her career before the impact of the women's movement had begun to be felt in the world of science. Intrigued by a case that seems to overturn all the stereotypes about women in science, the Women's Review asked about her work and her background.
WRB: Let's start out by talking about your current work.
JL: I study the immune response to the AIDS virus, HIV. I started out by studying a branch of the immune system called cytotoxic T-lymphocytes. They're cells in the body that can recognize an infected cell and kill it, and in the process destroy whatever virus or intracellular organism is infecting the cell. Based on our laboratory studies, I figured out ways of growing large numbers of these cells from patients. We're actually involved in clinical trials which involve giving people back expanded killer lymphocytes. So part of what we do in the lab is look at the immune system, but it's partly targeted towards looking at ways in which you might manipulate it to treat people. In somebody who's infected, there's a balance between the virus and its ability to replicate itself, to reproduce, and the immune response's ability to squash it. In HIV, the immune system is able to control things for a decade or so, on the average, before someone gets sick. If you can find ways of augmenting the immune response or harnessing it, you could improve on that.
WRB: So the goal is not a cure, but treatment?
JL: It's mostly treatment, although I think that it's not inconceivable that if you started treatment early enough, you might be able to cure the disease.
WRB: You're also a doctor, a clinical doctor.
JL: In the past there was a species of clinician-scientists who really did both, and in the last decade or two that species has been dying out, because it's very competitive to get funding to do research nowadays. Mostly, people define themselves on one pathway or the other, and I'm mostly doing research, although it's what's called translational research - research with the aim of applying all of the exciting things that are happening in biology now to actual treatment.
WRB: Do you prefer being a researcher? Would you rather go back to the clinician-researcher model?
JL: I like doing both. I like the intellectual stimulation of doing research, but taking care of people is very gratifying and it's fun. It's also interesting in the sense that you're in this privileged position of being involved in many people's lives. You get to know what they're really like, what their life situations are; you meet a breadth of types of people that you wouldn't meet in your normal social interactions.
WRB: I understand that initially you were doing research in high-energy physics - what we think of as masculine, big science - before you made this shift sometime in the early eighties and went to medical school.
JL: In fact, in a lot of ways biological research is much more aggressive and competitive and more macho than theoretical high-energy physics. The kind of physics I did, which is very theoretical, doesn't involve a lot of money - you fashion it out of the brain. It's more like mathematics. The people who go into …