Mina Bissell ’63, a distinguished scientist in the Life Sciences Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was a guest recently on the People Behind the Science podcast. Hosted by Dr. Marie McNeely, the podcast explores the lives and experiences of the people behind today’s headline-grabbing scientific research.
In the interview, Bissell describes the journey from her native Iran to Bryn Mawr—“a magnificent school”—and a career dedicated to researching cell biology and cancer viruses. Along the way, she shares book recommendations (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find) and her advice for a good life: Don’t be arrogant. It kills curiosity and passion.
But the heart of the interview focuses on Bissell’s research career, which has to do with “fundamental questions in biology,” as she explains to McNeely. “We have, believe it or not, somewhere between 10 trillion to 70 trillion of cells in our bodies—I say it’s bigger than the debt of the U.S. and Europe put together—and every cell in your body has the same genetic information.”
Bissell studies the area of tissue and organ specificity that answers the question of why the cells in a particular part of your body form the structures they do and not something else. For example, she asks, “How does your nose know to be a nose? Why doesn’t it turn into your eyes?”
Tissue and organ specificity are fundamentally related to cancer. When cells forget their tissue-specific functions, they start doing something else. They can begin to pile up, form tumors, and travel elsewhere in the body.
Listen to Changing How We Think About Cancer.
After spending two years at Bryn Mawr, Bissell received her B.A. in chemistry from Radcliffe College and a M.Sc. in bacteriology and biochemistry as well as a Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics from Harvard University. She has received many awards and honors, including the Lawrence Award (the highest given by the Department of Energy), the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the American Cancer Society’s Medal of Honor, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation Brinker Award. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Royal Society of Chemistry.