Unraveling RNA and Stereotypes: Q&A with Award-Winning Scientist Lynne Maquat

Aug. 29, 2017
Maquat talks about her latest award, what keeps her going, her favorite things outside the lab
Lynne Maquat with her labrador, Lia
Lynne E. Maquat, Ph.D.

University of Rochester biochemist Lynne E. Maquat, Ph.D. is the winner of the 2018 FASEB Excellence in Science Award. FASEB, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, presents the award to women who have made outstanding contributions to the scientific community through research discoveries and training the next generation of scientists. Maquat is best known for unraveling RNA’s role in sickness and in health and for advocating for young women in the sciences.

Maquat is the recipient of several other prestigious honors: the Canada Gairdner International Award; the RNA Society’s Lifetime Achievement Awards in Service and in Science; the Rochester ATHENA Award®; and election to the National Academies of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She’s maintained continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health for her entire career, published more than 150 papers and reviews, and mentored over 50 students and postdoctoral fellows in her lab. You might wonder…what makes such a successful scientist tick? We asked.

Q: Did you have any role models when you were training to become a scientist?

Lynne Maquat with a trainee

A: When I was in college and graduate school there were very few female scientists and many male scientists who believed women didn’t belong in the field. Fortunately, I came across women and men who were particularly supportive, including some very successful female scientists who had it even harder than I did when they were starting out. I’m sorry to say that many women, even now, don’t pursue careers in science. I established the Graduate Women in Science program at UR to provide mentoring and personal and professional development to encourage more women to enter STEM fields.

Q:You’ve made lots of important discoveries throughout your career. What keeps you going?

A: I learned that if I believe in what I’m doing it’s so much easier to keep going. I’m an introvert and when I was younger I was very shy. But, as a scientist, I’m asked to give lectures all the time. Believing in what I’m doing has helped me get past the fear of public speaking and be excited about talking to people about my lab’s science, no matter how much it rocks traditional views.

Q: What’s a cool discovery that you’ve made recently in your lab?

A: One of the diseases we study is Fragile X Syndrome, which is a genetic condition that causes intellectual disability. Cells have a system of “checks and balances” in place to keep us healthy. In Fragile X, this system is abnormal, and we think this leads to problems in the brain. We’re working to understand what goes wrong with this system on the molecular level so that we can figure out how to correct it.

Q: What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab?

A: I love dogs and have a black lab named Lia. I enjoy taking her for walks in the park or woods and playing with her. Dogs give you a good cover for acting goofy! I like exercising because it keeps the mental molecules in my brain sharp and helps me sleep better. I love books about empowered women. And I’m an adventure travel person; I’m lucky that my work has taken me all over the world.

Q: What’s something surprising about you?

A: When I was in fourth grade my teacher told my mother she didn’t think I was college material. Actually, I would clam up in class when that teacher called on me because I was afraid of her. I’m the first person in my family to go to college.

Q: What’s your best advice for young people just starting a career in science (or any field)?

A: Nothing in life that’s worth doing is going to be without struggle. Not every day is going to be great, but if you like what you’re doing 70 to 80 percent of the time, that’s pretty good. The keys are believing in what you’re doing and perseverance. Understand what your strengths are and utilize them. Recognize what your weaknesses are and compensate for them. Above all, do what you have a passion for. That doesn’t mean that you won’t have doubts about the path you have chosen, but chose the best you can and modify as needed as you go along.

Maquat, the J. Lowell Orbison Endowed Chair and Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and founding director of the University of Rochester’s Center for RNA Biology: From Genome to Therapeutics will accept the award in April 2018 in San Diego. She will receive an unrestricted research grant of $10,000 and present a special award lecture at the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The FASEB has awarded the Excellence in Science Award to outstanding women scientists in recognition of their achievements in research, mentorship and service since 1989.

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