Success Stories: Susan Marino

Dr. Susan MarinoSusan Marino, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology
Director, Center for Clinical and Cognitive Neuropharmacology
University of Minnesota

The benefits of an unconventional path 

Like many academic women who are part of a dual-career couple, family concerns influenced the direction of my research career.

Since positions for people with philosophy PhDs are rare, I was always confident that no matter where my philosopher husband landed, I could find, at the very least, a fruitful postdoctoral fellowship that would deepen my knowledge while broadening my skill at the bench, all toward the eventual goal of procuring a faculty position and establishing my own lab. I was even able to garner an NRSA postdoctoral fellowship while we lived in Copenhagen during the two years my husband was on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship studying the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard.

After a few years, unexpected personal circumstances brought us to rural Maine where the only science position I could find was teaching high school biology and physics. For all kinds of reasons, this foray into the American education system was life changing – but one thing was certain: it was not moving me any closer to a university appointment. And that dream seemed on its way to evaporating upon our move to Minnesota where my husband finally was offered a tenure-track position in a small liberal arts college.

Therefore, when offered the director’s position for the Program for Women in Science at the University of Minnesota, I accepted, knowing full well that I was now too far removed from the bench and had too sparse a publication record to hold out any hope of a faculty position, especially since I was geographically grounded.

I worked hard to establish successful precollege outreach programs and build strong ties with women students and faculty. But as satisfying as that work was, I couldn’t help but regret that I wasn’t making use of all the excellent training I received throughout my graduate and postdoctoral years, funded almost solely by NIH. And after more than eight years of being away from the lab, I missed it sorely [Ed. note: Currently, the window for re-entry supplements is limited to between one and five years away from active research]. It was clearly time to look for a research position.

I was fortunate enough to find a funded neuropharmacology group at the University of Minnesota willing to hire me as a research associate. NINDS staff guided me through the application process for a supplement (NIH Supplement to Promote Reentry into Biomedical and Behavioral Research Careers), which I used to update my skills and obtain training in clinical research. Afterwards, they helped shepherd me through the process of what turned out to be a successful application for an NIH/NINDS K01 Mentored Career Development Award.

Though it is understatement to say that the path I took to get where I am today is not the most expeditious way to achieve an academic research position, I do believe that the broad, interdisciplinary palette of skills and knowledge I procured along the way is exactly what was required to tackle the complex challenges inherent in studying what I am now focused on—drug effects on cognition. But it was the additional training underwritten by my K01 that allowed me to lay the foundation for my current, NIH-funded, independent research program.

The Reentry to Neurological Sciences program and the sound advice I received from training and program officers such as Henry Khachaturian, David Jett, Steve Korn, Margaret Jacobson, and Debra Babcock were critically helpful in getting me where I am today: a tenure-track faculty member at the University of Minnesota, the principle investigator (PI) of an R01 grant, and director of a unique center, doing cutting edge research in clinical neuropharmacology and cognition.

Though I am now at an age when many of my contemporaries are beginning to contemplate retirement, I just submitted my dossier for promotion to associate professor with tenure! So, I encourage other women who might think it’s too late to resurrect a research career to reconsider their options, be proactive, and contact an NIH Training Officer. I am truly fortunate to be finally doing what I love, and for the opportunity to participate in the endeavor to improve the health and wellbeing of people though my science. Needless to say, I am deeply indebted to the NINDS Diversity Training/Reentry to Neurological Sciences Program for making that possible.

Currently, the window for re-entry supplements is limited to between one and five years away from active research.

Current Research Image reflecting the comprehensive, multidisciplinary framework for delineating and quantifying effects of drug administration on cognition

By integrating the tools of clinical pharmacology, computational linguistics, neuroscience, and engineering into a multi-system approach, we seek to account for, and eventually predict, how a drug’s mechanism(s) of action in the brain and its disposition in the body affect an individual’s cognitive function. Development of this comprehensive, multidisciplinary framework for delineating and quantifying effects of drug administration on cognition enables us to effectively address clinical questions while elucidating mechanism.