Inquiries of the Light: An Interview with Dr. Brenda Bass

In the following interview, distinguished scientist and scholar, Dr. Brenda Bass, recounts the ways that her life has lead her on a journey of inquiry and how this connects to her Zen practice.

Where did you grow up and what was that like for you?  Were there any major influences (people, experiences, activities, etc.) in your development that radically influenced you?

I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and my family has deep southern roots—Georgia, North and South Carolina. I love many things about southern culture (black-eyed peas!), and my favorite childhood memories were from summers visiting my grandmother in the North Carolina mountains.

The mountains and my grandmother were extremely important to me. I learned that I was a mountain girl during those summers, which set the stage for where I would choose to live for the rest of my life (Washington, Colorado and now Utah).

I never felt like I fit in with the culture of south Florida, where day-to-day life is often focused on the superficial—”How do I look today? What should I wear?” My grandmother was a voice of reality for me, since she focused on what I considered to be the more meaningful things of life.

A shadow over my early childhood was the severe allergies and asthma that I first had at 2 months of age. I was in the hospital constantly, and of course, there were many adults telling me, “Brenda, you can’t do that, come inside and rest!” So of course, this instilled a desire to do everything that I was told I couldn’t do, as well as a deep appreciation for being healthy. I had wonderful parents, and they never stopped trying to find things that would make me better, and finally, when I was 11 or 12, I grew out of most of my allergies. At the time, I truly believed that I had experienced the worst, and that life would be downhill from then on. Throughout my 20s I frequently had moments of shear elation when I realized I was healthy!

How did you first discover your passion for science?  What is the story of your engagement with science?

I have always been drawn to challenge and discovery. (No doubt my mother would tell you that I was the challenge!) But I wasn’t the kid with the chemistry set. Instead, I was constantly writing essays and poems, singing in choirs and playing the piano. In school I did well in math and science and was tracked into advanced classes, but in my junior year of high school I dropped out of all science classes. As a high school student in the late 60s and early 70s, I was a back-to-nature hippie girl. Dow Chemical, the makers of the napalm used in the Vietnam war, the beginning of the environmental movement, and the shocking realization by the public that citizens had been exposed to radiation without their knowledge, all led to a mistrust of science. I was deep into this counterculture, and I began college as an English major. However, having people tell me how to write did not sit well with me, and this, along with the realization that I was more likely to earn a living in science, led to my return to science, and I now have a bachelor’s and a Ph.D. in chemistry.

I am extremely thankful to those teachers whose actions led to my realization that I loved the process of science, and that science could be a conduit for my deep love of being creative. I have a vivid memory of my organic chemistry professor at Colorado College, Dr. Harold Jones, coming by my lab bench in an advanced chemistry class, asking me what I was doing, then dropping a spatula of something into my bubbling flask. He looked at me and said: “Brenda, figure out what I added.” I was in heaven in the following days as I did test after test to solve the puzzle.

I was also lucky in my choice of mentors for my subsequent Ph.D. and postdoctoral work, which provided amazing experiences in the process of discovery. I was a Ph.D. student in the laboratory of Dr. Tom Cech during the discovery of ribozymes, work that he later received a Nobel Prize for (shared with Dr. Sid Altman). Tom is the quintessential rigorous scientist, and I credit Tom with turning me into a rigorous scientist. Prior to my postdoctoral training, I was a chemist and biochemist. My postdoctoral mentor, the late Dr. Harold Weintraub, was amazing in his ability to key in on the most important biological questions, and exposure to this attribute was also essential to my development as a scientist.

How did you come to be a Zen practitioner?  What factors in your life do you suspect led to this attraction?

The uneasiness I felt growing up in the culture of south Florida led me to constantly question the principles and rules of life of those around me. I did not trust the accepted truth, and possibly this set the stage for my future as a scientist and a Zen practitioner![

My high school hippie days and interactions with friends, many who were 5-10 years older than me, exposed me to the 60s counterculture. The real turning point for me was reading “The Book” by Alan Watts when I was 14 years old. The word Bible derives from the Greek and Latin words for “book” and the thesis of “The Book” is that if a parent wanted to pass on the most important knowledge to their child, for example, as the Bible is suppose to do, this is what Alan thought the important knowledge should be. “The Book” is steeped in Zen tradition and spoke to me at a deep level. While this exposure to the rudiments of the Dharma happened early, it was not for almost 40 years that I would begin sitting and start a true practice.

How has Zen practice influenced your life, development, worldview and other practices? 

While I didn’t begin a formal practice until my late 40s, a layman’s understanding of the essence of Zen has lingered in my subconscious since I was a teenager. A realization that life is precious and short, and that we all spend a lot of time doing things that miss the essence of life. I have always been appreciative of, and grateful for, the times when I allow myself to be pulled into the essence of the moment.

Throughout my career, my way of practicing science has cultivated certain aspects of Zen. Discipline, focus, and having a “beginner’s mind”, are essential to the way I do science

Can you elaborate on this? How does a beginner’s mind factor into doing science?

As with art or music, the best science is done by a complete immersion in the project. Discipline and focus allow you to go deeper into the research, and in truth, breakthroughs often come from graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are working 15 hour days and performing multiple experiments each day. They begin to notice subtleties they were blind to before. Discoveries follow when preconceived ideas are dropped, and a “beginner’s mind” interprets the data. All of a sudden a new feature in an image of a living cell that you have looked at a hundred times becomes so obvious.

What drew you back into Zen practice after your early exposure through Watts?

As is often the case, I sought a more tangible Zen practice when I went through some challenging times, in both science and my personal life, during my late 40s. I began going to Zazen and talks at Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City. It was here I first heard Doen Roshi speak when he was giving a Dharma talk as a Sensei. I so appreciated his way of integrating the Dharma with the practice of ordinary life. A few years later, after Kanzeon closed, I found Doen by searching the Internet, and soon joined the Lost Coin group.

Are there other ways your Zen practice has affected your practice of science?

I operate at a high level in science—publishing in high-profile journals, giving keynote addresses, sending students and postdocs off to good jobs. Yet, I still struggle with self-imposed limitations: imagining what I want to do but not always going there; having a hesitation, or fear, of pushing the limits of what is possible. I so appreciate Roshi’s emphasis on excellence, and of course, any time excellence is the goal, all feelings of limitation need to be avoided. To me it seems imperative to pursue what you believe is the truth in an unfettered and bold way—this is the philosophy of Zen and one our teacher emphasizes. Studying with Roshi has helped me to be bold more often, and to let the limitations slip away.

While science is very, very fun, it can be stressful. Competition for jobs and funding is fierce. While the university or institute where a scientist is employed typically provides about half of their salary and laboratory space, the scientist must acquire the funding to cover the salaries of students, postdoctoral fellows and technicians needed to do the work, and the materials and equipment needed to perform experiments. To maintain a lab of about 8-10 people costs about $500,000 a year. In this regard, another more subtle, but very important, thing I have learned from Roshi is to have faith that it will all be OK. Because of course, it is always OK.

How specifically does the practice of science alter a worldview?

The process of getting a Ph.D. in science changes you—I see this in my students. Their worldview is dramatically altered. They want to know the truth; they want to know about the controls. When someone tells them something, they, usually politely, ask for the data: “How do you know that?” “Why did you say that?” The trick as a scientist (who is also a loving human being) is to do this in a gentle and fun way!

If you could describe the values of science as a practice, what qualities do you think the practice of science emphasizes?

At its essence, science is the search for the truth. The search for the truth through science requires absolute honesty. Now that it is the students and postdocs training in my lab that do the experiments, I have to learn how to communicate with them in a completely open and honest way. I have to learn to stand in their shoes, see what they are seeing, so together we can think out of the box, be creative, and excitingly, discover things!

What relationship do you see between science and Zen practice?  Does Zen practice inform your relationship to science?  If so, how?

Good scientists are always seeking the truth and deep understanding. On a day to day basis you are presented with mysteries, and to solve these mysteries you bring all of your prior knowledge to bear, but importantly, in the same moment you need to open your mind to the possibility that this is something new, unrelated to everything you have seen before. This is the hard part, and I have to smile at all the times in the past where I have been misled by the published literature. But when you do let in the improbable, and all of the pieces fall into place, it is truly intoxicating. Doesn’t this remind you of Zen?

What other interests or activities do you enjoy? When you aren’t “doing science,” what occupies your fascination, interest and time?

I love being outdoors– hiking, biking and skiing in the mountains. My husband and I have a house near Capitol Reef National Park, and on weekends we take long hikes, usually where there are no trails, just a journey my husband has formed in his head after staring at maps for hours. I love walking on the slickrock, reaching a summit and breathing in the wide expanse.

I am also an avid reader of novels, and this borders on an addiction! I read one or two books a week, late at night as I am falling asleep. Well-written books leave beloved characters that float in the backdrop of my thoughts like friends.

My other hobby is cooking, and this is something many lab scientists enjoy. Ironically, the more senior you get as a scientist the fewer experiments you do yourself. Your technicians, students, and postdocs do the experiments. You live vicariously through their experiments, helping them interpret them and doing the many other things required to keep your lab going. So when I come home at night, I chop and stir to satisfy the loss of

the day-to-day tinkering at the lab bench!

Could you describe your research emphasis to a layperson?

Most people are familiar with double-stranded DNA, the molecule that stores our genetic information. My laboratory studies a related molecule, double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). (Imagine two, very long, intertwined spaghetti strands.) Why dsRNA exists in living cells is a bit of a mystery. However, most scientists now believe that it was RNA, rather than DNA, that stored the genetic material in the primordial cells that gave rise to modern-day cells. The continuing presence of dsRNA in our cells is likely a vestige of this.

My fascination with dsRNA began when I discovered a protein in our cells that binds to dsRNA. At that time, about 30 years ago, it was believed that the only time dsRNA was in our cells was after a viral infection. Indeed, when a virus infects a cell, dsRNA that matches the sequence of the viral genome is found in the cell. Viral dsRNA in our cells is recognized as foreign, and triggers an immune response–an SOS telling our body that it is infected. Since that early discovery, my lab and others, have discovered, surprisingly, that all animal cells, including human cells, make their own dsRNA. At least superficially, one double helix of spaghetti looks just like another double helix of spaghetti. So–why doesn’t the dsRNA made by our own cells trigger an immune response? Is it possible that certain autoimmune diseases occur because our cells mistake our own dsRNA for viral dsRNA? For years now, my lab has been focused on getting to the heart of these questions. We try to understand how cells distinguish the good from the bad— the cellular dsRNA (self) from the viral dsRNA (non-self).

How do you wish your research to be used or to develop in the future?  What is the goal of your research in its larger purview?

Recently my laboratory’s studies of dsRNA have revealed a clear difference in the way vertebrates (animals with a backbone, like us) and invertebrates (animals without a backbone, like worms and flies) deal with viral dsRNA in the process of fighting an infection. Using what we learn, we hope someday to contribute to the development of new ways to treat viral infections in humans.

That said, while I very much hope that someday the research performed by my laboratory will provide insight that leads to a cure or treatment for a disease, to be honest, that is not what drives me forward. Rather, I am simply driven by the puzzle of it all, the challenge of a question, and the opportunity to make a discovery.

You have received a number of honors, including being elected to the National Academy of Sciences: What has this been like for you?

I consider being a scientist an amazing privilege. I go to work everyday to solve puzzles and be creative. What could be better? However, while doing science is wonderful, it is hard. Getting grants to fund your research is a constant battle. It is common to work on a project for years before it leads to discovery, and for every one project that is successful, there are 10 more that fail. Love for the day-to-day process of doing science is essential to life as a scientist, and my Zen practice, and Roshi’s constant reminders of the importance of time being and the moment, encourages this. That said, I was absolutely ecstatic when I got into the National Academy of Sciences!

At least by my perception, the way I do science is a bit atypical. While I am a very rigorous scientist, I am also very intuitive in the ways I stumble into discoveries. Intuition is not what card-carrying scientists vocally admit to, and in insecure times I question whether I should be doing science at all. While formally my election to the National Academy of Sciences was for promoting understanding of the functions of dsRNA and proteins mediating these functions, it was also validation by my peers of the way I do science—a wonderful thing. In the same breath it needs to be pointed out that lots of luck is involved, and that the large majority of excellent and deserving scientists do not get into the National Academy.

What role do you imagine science playing in an ideal society?  What is your utopian vision for science in society and the world as a whole?

You are asking a question that, in truth, I never think about! I am a “live and let live” person, and I don’t think about pressing my passions on others. However, this question becomes easier for me to answer when I ask myself, “What would the world be like without science?” Uninformed! It seems sacrilegious to me to go through life uninformed. I simply can’t imagine a world without the desire to learn, be creative, and discover things. To me it seems a world without science would be a world without wonder.

What advice can you offer lay people to develop greater scientific literacy and awareness in their daily lives?

Be open to the magic of understanding the world we live in and the excitement of knowing how things work. Throughout history, there have been times when science has been portrayed as bad or evil–as being incompatible with religion and spirituality. Fortunately, at present, science is more often associated with things considered to be good for our lives, like curing cancer. The layperson typically wants to know about science and where their tax dollars are going, and there are many science writers who do an excellent job of communicating science. Try to be calm and rise above any fear of science that you may have acquired during your life. Look for the science writers who speak to you. There are some wonderful podcasts too!

Dr. Brenda Bass is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Utah. She is known for her contributions in defining double-stranded RNA-mediated pathways, including the discovery of ADAR RNA editing enzymes. Dr. Bass obtained a B.A. in chemistry from Colorado College, and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Dr. Bass’s scientific contributions have been recognized by her election to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.