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Alumni Spotlight: Mary Sunderland

May 15, 2017

Reflections from the first PhD Biology and Society student... I love science. I love everything about science, and that is why I often found it challenging to be stuck in the laboratory. During my masters, I studied stem cell biology. What could be more amazing and engaging than studying stem cells? For me, the only thing better than doing science was learning and thinking about the way science works in the larger world, beyond the laboratory walls. I was not satisfied studying cells in a dish, I wanted to study science in all its cultural complexities, but I didn’t really know if that was even possible; thankfully, I met Dr. Jane Maienschein at exactly the right moment in my academic journey. We were both at a conference about stem cell models in biology, organized by Dr. Jason Robert. Meeting Jane and Jason opened my eyes to an entirely different way of thinking – I jumped at the chance to be one of the first PhD students to study in the Biology and Society Program.

Before beginning my studies at ASU, Jane asked me what I wanted to do with my degree and encouraged me to use “blue sky thinking” to imagine my ideal career. The world was changing rapidly and Jane knew that there would be a myriad of important roles for people who knew how to think critically and strategically about the life sciences. It was up to us – the new Biology and Society graduate students – to create those roles.   

Thanks to my experiences at the Center for Biology and Society, I’ve developed a career that allows me to engage with biology and society every day. As the Director Mary at Vision Questof Research and Education at the Foundation Fighting Blindness, I oversee a translational research portfolio and complementary educational program that aims to drive the development of new treatments for blinding eye diseases. Working toward the big-picture goal of bringing new treatments to the patients who need them motivates everything I do. My role involves interacting with diverse stakeholders including scientists, clinicians, industry experts, regulatory agencies, ethicists, funding agencies, academic institutions, government decision makers, and, most importantly, patients and their families.

I emphasize my interactions with patients because they remind me of why I am doing the work and how urgently they need access to new treatments. Patients and their families are one of the main audiences that the FFB communicates with in their monthly newsletter, e-news. As the main author of many research stories, I learned that patients often prefer to talk about science rather than read about it, which is understandable because science writing is often quite dense. Talking through things makes science more accessible; this is why we recently started hosting a complementary Facebook Live session to pair with our monthly e-news. This way, patients can read stories online before tuning into the “Let’s Talk Research” live broadcast, where I discuss the stories in more detail and answer questions.

The education I received through the Biology and Society program gave me the skills, knowledge, and confidence to engage with diverse material and build strong collaborations with people who have a wide range of perspectives and experiences. In short, the Biology and Society program prepared me to boldly tackle really tough, inherently interdisciplinary problem, like developing new treatments for blindness. Blue sky thinking can take you anywhere.   

More Information: Mary Sunderland (Mary.Sunderland@gmail.com)

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