Humans of the U: Cynthia Burrows

“Chemistry is getting to the root of how molecules work, and the molecule I’m most interested in is DNA. Our techniques are so good now, we can look at an individual molecule of DNA. That’s really getting after fundamental aspects of how life works. I liken this to working on a jigsaw puzzle, something that’s been a tradition in our family. We’ll get a jigsaw puzzle for the holidays. Everyone does a little. So many things are interconnected. One piece of the puzzle is just that—one piece of the puzzle. Every piece that you put in that connects, making a clearer part of the puzzle, is a eureka moment. It’s so much fun.

When I was a postdoc thinking about my next step, I wrote to my Ph.D. advisor and asked for a letter of recommendation. He wrote back and said, ‘I assume that you’re going to be applying only to the top-tier universities in the U.S. I will write my letter accordingly.’ I guess so, then! I hadn’t really thought about what I should be shooting for. I loved going out there and talking about my ideas. Job interviewing is the most fun I’ve ever had. Well, almost. I’ve had a lot of fun since then, too.

If somebody gave me millions of dollars and set me in an isolated lab, I don’t think I’d make an impact. Impact is all about collaborating with other people, bouncing ideas off them, realizing they have a different technique. It’s a human endeavor, science. It’s not something where you stick yourself in the corner and brilliant things happen. The friendships I’ve made with collaborators have been spectacular. That’s allowed me to travel the world and visit with them in different places. It’s very much a people thing.”

—Cynthia Burrows, Thatcher Presidential Endowed Chair of Biological Chemistry, 2019 Rosenblatt Prize Winner

We’ll be featuring Humans of the U and sharing their stories throughout the year with the university community. If you know someone with a compelling story, let us know at