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Written by Eric McHenry   
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Linda Buck, Alumna of The Year
Nobel Prize-winner Linda Buck, '75
Scientists are by their nature inquisitive, but Ellen Vitetta says that in her 30-plus years of training young microbiologists she has never met anyone who asked as many questions as Linda Buck, ’75.

“I don’t just mean questions about her work,” says Vitetta, who was Buck’s mentor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in the mid-’70s. “I mean, ‘Why is the sky blue? Why is that flower pink?’—that kind of thing.” At a Christmas party that featured skits and spoofs on department personalities, the woman who portrayed Buck simply wandered the stage asking questions.

Along with her curiosity, Buck is remembered at UT for her keen, original mind and her work ethic. So when she was named co-winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her groundbreaking investigations into the human sense of smell, no one was especially surprised. “We had a press conference down here,” Vitetta recalls, “and everyone was laughing and saying, ‘I knew she’d eventually ask the right question.’ ”

Vitetta, who is now professor and director of the Cancer Immunobiology Center at UT Southwestern, may have been the least surprised of all. She had stayed in close touch with Buck through the years, and had seen the breakthrough paper before it was even published—the 1991 paper in which Buck and Richard Axel, her postdoctoral advisor at Columbia University, first identified the family of genes that allows humans to detect and distinguish smells. “I immediately recognized it was Nobel material,” Vitetta says. “It was a paradigm-changing paper. I knew as well as you can know without any evidence that Linda and Richard would get the prize. It was just a question of when.”

Nobel Prize medal
Nobel Prize medal, photo by Mary Levin
Now Buck, a member in the division of basic sciences at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and an affiliate professor of physiology and biophysics at the UW, has another prize to put on her increasingly crowded mantel. The University of Washington and the UW Alumni Association have named her the 2006 Alumna Summa Laude Dignata—the alumna of the year. It’s the highest honor the University confers upon its graduates, and Buck is its 66th recipient.

Buck comes by her curiosity naturally. Her father was an electrical engineer who liked to invent things in the basement of the family’s Green Lake home. Her mother was a crossword-puzzle buff. (“I’ve never been that interested in crosswords,” says Buck, “but I think I got some of that same joy in puzzle-solving.”) Both parents encouraged Buck and her two sisters to pursue their passions and to question everything, including their own assumptions. Other children buried their pet hamsters in the backyard. Buck, curious about decomposition, exhumed hers.

But she never suspected she’d be a scientist. When a teacher at Roosevelt High School wrote in her yearbook that she might make a fine biologist one day, Buck thought, “That’s really strange.”

“I thought I wanted to help people,” she says. “Actually, I’m not sure what I thought—I was a junior in high school. But I did feel strongly that I should try to help people, and for a while I thought I might be a psychotherapist.”

Buck threw herself into the study of psychology when she came to the UW in 1965. She even approached Walt Makous, one of her first professors, and asked if there was any research she could get involved in. “I was unfunded at the time—I was just a beginning assistant professor,” says Makous, who left the UW in 1979 to direct the Center for Visual Science at the University of Rochester. “But a colleague of mine had left an apparatus fallow for two weeks while she went on Christmas vacation. So I used it for an experiment, and Linda helped me with it. She was one of the two subjects; I was the other one.” Their psycho-physical study, which concerned light passing through different pathways in the eye and how it stimulated the visual system, resulted in a published article.

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