FINALIST YEAR: 1999
HER FINALIST PROJECT: Reducing mite loads in honeybee colonies, using natural compounds
WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: Carol Fassbinder-Orth grew up in Elgin, Iowa, where her mother and father owned an apiary featuring 2,000 colonies of bees. A colony has about 50,000 members, meaning Fassbinder-Orth played amidst, and later helped take care of, 100 million of the buzzing creatures. They stung as she drove her truck up to the colonies. They stung as she set up the honey boxes and stung as she took them off. They stung when she administered treatments for parasites. She and her siblings might get stung several times a day. "I can't say that it hurts any less" when it happens all the time, she says, "but you don't react to it as much the more you get stung. You learn how to deal with it."
There was some sweetness amid the stinging. Throughout her school career, Fassbinder-Orth experimented with different natural treatments for honeybee parasites. In high school, she discovered that a compound from the perilla plant could reduce the mite load in a colony by 80 to 90 percent. She entered this result in the 1999 Intel Science Talent Search, and placed fourth. She was thrilled—and surprised. She had taken no advanced placement science classes, and perhaps only a third of her 30-odd Elgin classmates planned to go to college.
THE EFFECT ON HER CAREER: The $20,000 award helped her go to Iowa State to continue studying bees. Fassbinder-Orth then started her PhD studying honeybees at Louisiana State, but eventually she decided to switch from diseased bees to diseased birds—or "avian immunology." She transferred to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she could also work at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, a biosafety level 3 facility.
There, she infected birds with the West Nile virus in order to figure out what makes some more susceptible to the disease than others. She took lots of precautions. Still, "it makes you a little nervous when you're giving a syringe full of the West Nile virus to a bird, knowing that if they flinch a little, you could stab yourself," she says. As with bee stings, though, "you get used to it." She worked quickly. She worked efficiently. Even though she'd switched universities, she finished her PhD in five years.
That was important because, all this time, she had a sidekick—a daughter. Being the working mom of a small child is never easy, but "the hardest thing for me was paying for day care and getting by on a graduate student budget," Fassbinder-Orth says. Her husband was also just starting in his career as a park ranger, and worked odd hours (often nights and weekends). So the couple did what they could. They found a day care that opened at 6 A.M. He would pick up a second job; she would teach a night class at a community college and schedule her lab work around all of this. There was little time for anything other than work and family. "I didn't go out with lab mates much," she says. "Lunch often didn't happen." She mentored undergraduates, but if they couldn't respect her time, they were out.
WHAT SHE'S DOING NOW: All this prioritization, however, helped her focus. She had defended her thesis earlier in the week we talked. She passed: "My advisor said it went unusually well."
The day after she defended her thesis, Fassbinder-Orth hopped in her car and drove to her new employer, Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. She had interviewed for a professorship there when she was eight months pregnant with her second child, a son, born this winter. The interviewers could not mention the elephant-size belly in the room, but "I did address it straight on, and I think it did help," says Fassbinder-Orth. She spoke of her experience juggling one child, teaching gigs and lab work, and said, simply, "I can handle this. There isn't a problem." Creighton agreed—she'll be teaching physiology and a new course on the ecology of zoonotic diseases— infections that can transfer between animals and people—this year.
Of course, moving with small kids is never simple. Fassbinder-Orth's four-month-old son screamed in the car for five of the seven hours between Madison and Omaha. But "you get used to it," she says. After all, compared with daily bee stings, a little hollering is nothing.
FINALIST YEAR: 1999