A matter of taste

Debunking myths and shattering stereotypes have long been part of Linda Bartoshuk’s career path.

It seems fitting that in order to reach the Cedar Street laboratory of Linda M. Bartoshuk, Ph.D., a visitor passes through a motley and aromatic gantlet of outdoor food carts offering some of Earth’s most piquant cuisines—Thai, Mexican, Szechwan. These vendors owe their livelihood to the never-ending fascination and pleasure humans derive from the sense of taste and, in her own way, so does Bartoshuk.

Bartoshuk is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the sense of taste, best known for her discovery in the early 1990s that one in four people is a “supertaster.” These individuals “live in a neon taste world,” she says, where sweet is far more cloying, and bitter more astringent, than for most of us. But this finding is just a capstone of 40 years’ work devoted to unraveling the most enigmatic of the human senses, a body of research honored in April by Bartoshuk’s election to the National Academy of Sciences.

Along the way, Bartoshuk has relished the demolition of scientific dogma—she proved that the sweet/bitter/salty “tongue map” found in textbooks is pure hokum, for example—but her career trajectory has been most decisively shaped by a dogged refusal to accept discrimination at the hands of science’s male establishment.

As a young girl in the tiny prairie town of Aberdeen, S.D., Bartoshuk devoured science fiction novels and dreamed of becoming an astronomer; she spent long wintry nights in vacant lots learning the constellations, armed only with star maps and a flashlight. In high school, she was the only girl in her physics, chemistry and trigonometry classes.

“To say I was a nerd … would be an understatement,” she says unabashedly, still looking the part with closely cropped hair, utilitarian eyeglasses and monochromatic clothes that seem pointedly unchic. Her guidance counselor cautioned her that a small-town upbringing might make the shift to college life difficult, but Bartoshuk, whose forthright speech retains the Midwestern cadence of her youth, insists that no one in Aberdeen ever discouraged her from pursuing science because she was a girl.

Bartoshuk was well into her astronomy course work at Minnesota’s Carleton College when professors told her that her chosen field was hostile to women, and that it would be nearly impossible for her to obtain a position at an observatory. Shock soon gave way to anger, and when she learned that the psychology department would accept her math and science credits, she immediately changed majors. She had abruptly abandoned a lifelong ambition, but before long Bartoshuk found an unexpected bridge between astronomy and her newly adopted field.

Beginning in ancient Greece, astronomers have used magnitude scales to compare the perceived brightness of stars; in modern times such scales were used to determine the size of the universe. Bartoshuk was thrilled to discover that magnitude scales also formed the core of psychophysics, the rich and rigorous branch of psychology that deciphers the relationships between the physical properties of sensory stimuli and the subjective sensations they evoke. Psychophysical methods have been the foundation of her research ever since.

Her undergraduate advisor had trained with the distinguished taste researcher Carl Pfaffmann, Ph.D., at Brown University, and he helped Bartoshuk secure a place as a graduate student in Pfaffmann’s lab. On her arrival, Pfaffmann told her outright that he didn’t want women there, and she is convinced that the first experiment he assigned her was expressly designed to fail. In any case, her male lab mates eventually convinced Pfaffmann that he was being unfair, and she went on to become a creative and productive student.

Bartoshuk eventually moved to Yale, and spent 20 prolific but trying years at the Yale-affiliated John B. Pierce Laboratory, an interdisciplinary research institute. In an autobiography published in a collection of reflections of eminent women, she wrote that “sexism started at the top and trickled down” at Pierce in those days. In an incident she calls typical, the lab’s then-director stopped a newly pregnant Bartoshuk in the hall to tell her that he would be sorry to see her go. Puzzled, she said that she planned to continue her research unabated. His reply: “Women like you are going to destroy Western civilization.”

In 1990, Bartoshuk found a safe haven as a professor in the Department of Surgery’s section of otolaryngology, where her lab, pleasantly cluttered with stacks of scientific articles and bedecked with kitschy plastic tongues and chili peppers, remains today.

At just about the time of her move to the School of Medicine, a peculiar circumstance threw Bartoshuk and her mentor Pfaffmann together once more. Pfaffmann was suffering from Ramsey Hunt syndrome, which had damaged the sense of taste on the left side of his tongue. Pfaffmann had told his graduate students that he would gladly serve as a research subject if an illness ever compromised his sensory function. Now he had his chance, and he called Bartoshuk.

Experiments with Pfaffmann produced valuable new data, but Bartoshuk says that the most enduring outcome of the work is personal: the intimacy of the lab gave her the courage to ask Pfaffmann about his biased behavior during her graduate school years. In reply, he told her that he never thought of her as anything but a gifted student, and she was content to leave it at that. Bartoshuk and Pfaffmann planned to publish a full account of their findings, but he suffered a stroke shortly thereafter and died in 1994. “I haven’t had the heart to write it up,” she says.

Despite the uphill battles she has fought, Bartoshuk does not seem to harbor resentment about the course of her career. Instead, at 64, she displays the unbridled enthusiasm of a freshly minted graduate student. As Jeremy M. Wolfe, Ph.D., a longtime friend who studies the visual system at Harvard Medical School, puts it, “The great thing about talking to Linda is that the most exciting thing in the world is whatever she’s working on right now!”

When asked whether she ever wonders what her life would have been like if she had worked in some other field, Bartoshuk says that she’s had little time to consider it. “Studying taste has been like following a trail of peanuts. As soon as I’ve picked one up, there’s another one waiting.” But the curiosity that propelled her out of Aberdeen soon surfaces. “My life looks to me like a series of accidents, which worries me,” she says. “What about all the accidents I didn’t have?” YM

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