Meet EPA Researcher Helen Buse, Ph.D.
EPA microbiologist Helen Buse helps improve drinking water quality by studying environmental bacteria that grows in water systems.
When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist?
Growing up, I was always fascinated by the hows and whys of things. Why do we get sick and need medical intervention sometimes but not others? How hard is it to discover life on other planets? And why do certain pitch intervals sound pleasant while others do not? Once I started realizing I had more questions than answers, I knew I wanted to do something to correct that imbalance.
Tell us about your background.
I earned my BS in biological sciences from Carnegie Mellon University and my PhD in microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan.
What do you like most about your research?
I enjoy being creative while still helping carry out EPA’s mission. In any scientific field, there are knowledge gaps, and it is up to the investigator to figure out how to fill those gaps by asking specific questions, coming up with an experimental design to answer them, and then having their methods and results independently reviewed by their peers and the scientific community. I also enjoy collaborating with other scientists. At EPA, there are many talented, hard-working, and knowledgeable people, who are always willing and able to lend their expertise. I feel very fortunate not only to be doing research, but to be conducting it at EPA.
How does your science matter?
I study an environmental bacterium that can grow in our drinking water systems and cause disease in susceptible individuals. As a microbiologist, I try to understand what is enabling their growth in our water systems, so we can mitigate those factors and help eliminate the risk of disease.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?
I would love to be a chocolatier. There is a lot of science that goes into getting the flavor and texture of chocolate, and the combination of ingredients, to be palatable. Come to think of it - is there a profession that doesn’t use science in some way?
What advice would you give a student interested in a career in science?
I would tell them to find out exactly what it is about science that interests them. There is a large diversity of career options—science writing, research in an academic, government, or industry setting, teaching, etc.—with an equally large field of topics to chose from. If they are interested in research, I would advise them to learn as much as they can about their professors’ projects and join their labs if possible. Observing how the professors carry out experiments and interpret their data is always a great learning experience and may help determine if this is the path for them.
If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
The ability to manipulate time would be a great superpower! If I could also cloak myself, I would travel to different time periods to observe how people lived and how science improved or negatively impacted their quality of life. I would also use that power to help clean up our planet, e.g. speed up radioactive decay and the degradation of other harmful chemicals and pollutants, like single-use plastic bottles.
What do you think the coolest scientific discovery was and why?
For me, it was when we found out all the genetic information to make a person are stored within every cell the body. As a result of different parts of the DNA being turned on and off at specific stages of development, a cell could, for example, end up being part of the brain or toe. I think cellular and developmental biology is fascinating and amazing.
If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would you choose and what would you discuss?
I would like to have dinner with Gregor Johann Mendel, the founder of genetic science, who used pea plants to determine how certain traits were passed on to subsequent generations. His plant experiments were very elaborate and required a lot of patience, astute observations, and meticulous record keeping. Being a bit of a black thumb, I would like to get gardening tips from him, but mostly I’d like to observe and learn from his personality and mannerisms that aided in the blossoming (pun intended) of this crucial scientific field.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.