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Linda Bockenstedt: A scientific family tradition

A 1974 Westinghouse finalist first takes on stuttering, then Lyme disease—and now the systemic biases of academic medicine
westinghouse, intel, linda bockenstedt, women in science, lyme disease, stuttering, stutter



Linda Bockenstedt

FINALIST YEAR: 1974

HER PROJECT: Using white noise to fight stuttering

WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: As Linda Bockenstedt was growing up in Dayton, Ohio, her engineer father helped launch her medical research career in two ways: First, he believed that girls could do science projects every bit as well as boys—and encouraged his daughters to do such projects. Second, he had a friend with a pronounced stutter.

The stutter fascinated her. "I remember seeing how he struggled to speak, and got curious about why that might be," says Bockenstedt, who had enrolled as a full-time college student at local Wright State University at age 15. As a science project to enter in contests, she figured she would test an idea: People who stuttered might have a bit of an echo in the brain pathways between their ears and the parts of their brains that were responsible for hearing. What if she overwhelmed those pathways, however? She tried it and found that, in her subjects, listening to white noise while speaking improved stuttering considerably. Linda entered her results in the 1974 Westinghouse Science Talent Search. She knew about the competition because her older sister, Paula, had been a finalist in 1971—a designation she soon learned they would share.

THE EFFECT ON HER HER CAREER: Becoming a Westinghouse finalist stoked Bockenstedt's fascination with the human body. After graduating from Harvard at age 19, she went to medical school, did a residency in internal medicine at Yale, and except for a fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco, has been a practicing rheumatologist and researcher at Yale ever since. Her main area of research has been studying the immune response to the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

WHAT SHE'S DOING NOW: In the 1980's Bockenstedt—along with sister Paula, a hematologist at the University of Michigan Medical Center—was a pioneer as a woman in academic medicine. She and many others assumed that women would make up half the tenured faculty at such schools before too long. They don't. So today, Bockenstedt still sees patients and does research, but she's also taken on a new role: the Yale University School of Medicine's director for professional development and equity.

In Bockenstedt's new position, she attacks the reasons that many talented women and minority researchers fail to reach their academic potential. "My goal is to try to even the playing field here, and help all faculty at the assistant professor level understand what the requirements are for promotion, and help mentor them so they can achieve their personal goals," she says.

She was tapped for the job because "she has been successful in coming up through the ranks at Yale and knows the challenges of academic medicine as both a clinician and a researcher," says Carolyn Mazure, professor of psychiatry and associate dean for faculty affairs at Yale's medical school. She also "understands that a diverse faculty, particularly in terms of gender and minority representation, adds value to the academic experience."

For Bockenstedt, it's proof that encouragement pays off. Bockenstedt's father encouraged his two daughters to go into science. Now Paula's two daughters are pursuing medical research, and Linda's high school–aged daughter will be doing research this summer, hopefully producing results she can enter in what is now the Intel Science Talent Search. "It's been a tradition," Bockenstedt says. "My sister and I were raised in an environment that was supportive of women doing medicine and science. Our children are recognizing that they can do the same thing."

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