Barbara Panning was born in Switzerland, one of three children. The family moved to Toronto, Canada, when Barbara was a young child, but Barbara continued to summer in Switzerland. She had an idyllic childhood and always loved science. Panning attended McMaster University, majoring in biology and anthropology. Her senior project involved work on Roberts syndrome in Darrell Tomkins’s lab. She continued at McMaster for her PhD, advised by James Smiley, working on herpes virus and adenovirus and publishing a number of papers. Panning began work on X-inactivation in Rudolf Jaenisch’s lab at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), moving to Philip Sharp’s lab at MIT to complete her postdoctoral work. She also married during this time.
Panning accepted an assistant professorship at the University of California, San Francisco, where the complexity of X-inactivation continues to intrigue her: X chromosomes seem to talk to each other so that they know how to silence one of them; people don’t end up with zero or two X chromosomes. How does this happen? When? How does an X chromosome get silenced in the proper twelve-hour time frame? How does DNA get packaged into chromatin for regulation of gene expression? These are the questions with which Panning still wrestles.
Panning discusses funding in general and her funding, specifically the Pew Scholars award; the necessity for publishing in top-tier journals versus public-access sites; teaching and other administrative duties and their effect on her lab time; balancing family life with work; lab management and the composition of her lab; and women in science and accommodations for children. She laments the decline in funding for science and the general science illiteracy, ruminating on the possibility of a science “ambassador.” In addition to long hours in the lab, Panning is involved in outreach to minority students and helps at her child’s school.