Buffy Stahl: “Born a Scientist” – She Follows Her Passion
GeM is shorthand for DuPont’s Genomics and Microbiome team, and if you pronounce it with a soft g, it sounds like the French word for “I love”: j’aime. “And, in fact, we’re full of love for the science we do,” says Buffy Stahl, leader of the GeM team within DuPont’s Nutrition & Health organization.
GeM supports DuPont’s probiotics, products based on microorganisms that are part of the natural flora in a human stomach and intestinal tract. GeM also supports cultures for dairy products like yogurt and cheese, and additionally searches for ways to prolong the life of perishable foods.
“Most of the science we support is to clinically substantiate the efficacy of our products,” says Stahl. In other words: to demonstrate that they work, and are safe to consume. “We work with a number of clinical scientists to demonstrate the efficiency of our products,” says Stahl, who has worked at DuPont for nearly eight years.
Always seeking to understand how things work, Stahl developed a passion for science early on. “Children are born scientists,” she says. “They have the curiosity, and the desire to ask why. For me, this never went away.”
Her first course on genetics lit a fire in her interests. Her school in the college town of Madison, Wisconsin, offered a broad array of science classes as well as apprenticeship programs for interested students. Stahl was able to get a job at the age of 16, working for the University of Wisconsin’s plant research facility, and never looked back.
Driven to Learn
Even today, the thing that “gets her hurrying to get out of bed in the morning” is the desire to change the world. In her case, she wants to have a positive impact on human health. She is proud to have been on the CRISPR team back in 2009. An acronym for clustered regular interspaced short palindromic repeats, CRISPR is essentially a bacterial immune system. “There were maybe 100 scientists in the world working in it back then, now the field has thousands of scientists working in it,” says Stahl. “It’s very exciting to see all the new applications in human health derived from our early work.”
She now leads a team working on finding new probiotics to improve women’s health, and for metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases. She’s highly motivated. Stahl’s father has Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease. Stahl herself suffers from Celiac, an autoimmune disorder. “We want to come up with products that prolong the original sensitization or onset of these diseases,” she says. “We believe that one day, people who are genetically predisposed to autoimmune disorders might be able to take probiotics that influence the microbiome to delay or even prevent disease development.”
Although Stahl’s curiosity and passion for science is her greatest asset, it’s also her greatest challenge, she says. By choosing to work in industry rather than academia, she must confront the tension between pure research and business on a daily basis.
“As industry scientists, we frequently have to forsake things we might be interested in. Instead, we have to move forward — or fail fast, if something isn’t going to work,” she says. Her team doesn’t have the luxury of lingering on things such as investigating why an underlying condition exists. Instead, her team focuses on developing solutions and understanding how they work.
“You’re always getting pulled in two different directions. You have to make tradeoffs. Set priorities,” she says. Business realities create pressured timeframes. “If we can’t get something to launch within the required timeframe, then we have to move on.”
Stahl considers herself fortunate in that she’s always worked in a diverse and inclusive environment. Her current technical leadership team is more than 50 percent female. “The leaders that I have direct reporting to embrace female qualities — our different style of verbal and nonverbal communication, for dealing with conflicts, and our way of creating supportive environments for our peers,” she says.
She loves to use a scientific metaphor to describe why her team works so well together. “In the microbiome, we often see that greater diversity is beneficial. The dynamics of our human team is the same,” she says.