By Karen Young Kreeger
The career track of Barbara
Beck 68, a principal at the Gradient Corporation
in Cambridge, Mass., has been marked by a series
of transitions. She has moved from one discipline
to another, and she has held positions within
academia and both the public and private sectors.
As a biology major at Bryn Mawr, Beck says, she
became familiar with a broad range of areas in
the biological sciences and received extensive
training in the lab. These experiences, along
with a solid foundation in basic liberal arts,
prepared her for the transitions in her professional
"I think that helped
me because over time Ive felt comfortable
transitioning from basic biochemistry research
to animal toxicology research, and now Im
not in the lab at all," Beck explains. "Im
involved in the interpretation of scientific data,
but I feel comfortable working in a number of
arenas in the biological and health sciences,
which I attribute to the fact that my biology
education at Bryn Mawr was a broadening experience."
After graduating from
Bryn Mawr, Beck didnt expect to go on for
a Ph.D. right away. "I think that in all
honesty we fall into a lot of things in life,"
she explains. Beck worked in a research lab at
Tufts University in the medical schools
molecular biology department, a position she obtained
with the help of L. Joseph Berry, chair of the
Bryn Mawr biology department at the time. "Dr.
Berry was also helpful in terms of opportunities
to do research during the summer and school year,"
Following a year at Tufts,
Beck entered a Ph.D. program in the molecular
biology department there, graduating in 1975.
She conducted basic biochemistry studies, looking
at changes in enzyme activity during the cell-division
cycle of bacteria. Beck went on to do postdoctoral
work at the University of Massachusetts Medical
Center and Harvard University, working on basic
molecular biology questions about messenger RNA
Transition to Toxicology
How did Beck find her way
from molecular biology to toxicology, one of her
early career transitions? "I realized I really
liked working with more applied projects where
I can see the results of the work in my lifetime,"
she explains. Beck also notes that the job market
at that time was less than inviting: "This
was before the explosion in sequencing and molecular
biology and biotech." When she finished her
last postdoc seven months into pregnancy with
no immediate funding in sight and a husband in
graduate school, Beck says, "I thought I
should be thinking about being more practical."
With that in mind she took
a one-year position as an instructor at Tufts.
"During that time I realized I wanted to
be more involved in public health," she recalls.
At the same time Harvard was in the process of
creating an interdisciplinary program in public
health, bringing together people from different
fields to spend part of their time on their own
research and part on group projects. It was as
a Fellow in the Interdisciplinary Programs in
Health at the Harvard University School of Public
Health that Beck started her work in toxicology.
She is still a lecturer in toxicology at Harvard.
Public and Private Sectors
After her fellowship at Harvard,
Beck became chief of air toxics at the Region
1 headquarters of the Environmental Protection
Agency from 1985 to 1987. Why this move from academia
to a government agency? "I really enjoyed
Harvard and the people there, but in academia
you spend a lot of time writing grants. I found
it frustrating to spend so much time on a project
that, at that time, had less than a 50 percent
chance of success. The success rate on grants
is now even lower."
Beck did receive an offer
of an assistant professorship at Harvard, which
she turned down. "People there still mention
to me that I was one of the few people to ever
do that," she says.
Beck accepted a position at
Gradient, an environmental consulting agency,
and has been there since the late 1980s. At the
EPA, she gained an appreciation of the difficulty
of being a regulator, "but it was also somewhat
frustrating working at a regional level where
you have to take guidance from headquarters rather
than develop your own programs," she says
of her decision to move into the private sector.
As Gradients point person
for toxicology and health-risk assessment, she
now has the opportunity to branch out. The company
deals with assessing the risk of environmental
chemicals. Gradients clients include private
corporations, law firms and municipalities. Becks
work there has included risk assessments of hazardous
waste sites and interpreting animal studies with
respect to human exposures. She is presently involved
in a large-scale analysis of potential risks for
pressure-treated wood. She recently gave a presentation
to Congress on the risks of low-level arsenic
exposure in drinking water, describing recommendations
from a National Academy of Science report on arsenic
In 1996 Gradient was acquired
by a large engineering firm, which Beck describes
as "not a happy marriage." In 1999,
Becks and another partners employment
agreements were about to expire. They talked to
the CEO of the engineering firm, tendered their
resignations and offered to buy Gradient back.
"The negotiation process almost gave me an
ulcer," recalls Beck. "It was nerve-wracking
and expensive, but clearly the right decision."
Beck is now in the midst of
yet another new stage in her career business
partner. As one of the three major owners in Gradient,
her responsibilities go beyond the conduct and
oversight of the technical work. An important
part of her responsibilities include client interaction
and business development. "As a niche, high-end
consulting firm, much of our work comes in as
sole source and via referrals," she explains.
"What this really means, in terms of business
development, is that I need to be able to identify
a solution to a technical problem in that initial
interview, often on the basis of limited and confusing
As an owner, Beck finds herself
watching the bottom line, tracking trends in revenues
and profits, and participating in major corporate
decisions, such as expanding into new business
areas: "Theres always a new challenge
to address." She notes that she works more
now than when she was a graduate student, but
that its different when you actually are
an owner of the business.
About the Author
Karen Young Kreeger is a science
journalist who writes on biomedical and womens
health topics, as well as careers in science.
Her most recent work has appeared in Bioscience,
Genome Technology, Muse and The