Running around a Research Lab

June 13, 2014

“I always tell people I’m a slightly different animal because of the family I came from,” said Mariana Gerschenson, 1991–92 American Fellow. “My father was a clinician who did research, and my mother was a mathematician. When I was little I would say, ‘I want to grow up and be a nurse’ — this was back in the 60s — and my parents would say to me, ‘No, no, no! You’re going to be a doctor.’ I grew up running around in a research lab.”

Mariana Gerschenson sits in a research lab wearing gloves and holding a test tube

Since these early beginnings, Gerschenson has come a long way in her research career. She is currently a tenured professor in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Gerschenson also serves as the director of research and graduate education at the medical school, chair of the cell and molecular biology graduate program, and deputy director for the Center for Native and Pacific Health Disparities Research.

Gerschenson has grounded her research career in clinical practicality, studying diseases like HIV and diabetes, so that her findings will be useful to all people and not just interesting to the science community. “People do this stuff for different reasons. I know people who just love the science. For me, I wanted to have a clinical effect at the end,” she said.

In 2000 Gerschenson discovered that, “in certain HIV drugs, the nucleoside reserve transcriptase inhibitors, specifically stavudine, are organ specific in their mitochondrial toxicity.” This is essential since “different drug combinations result in different mitochondrial organ-specific complications.” With this discovery, she achieved her goal of using science to help tackle real-world medical problems.

One of Gerschenson’s current projects focuses on diabetes, specifically the shift from insulin resistance to becoming diabetic. It explores the health and function of mitochondria and oxygen consumption in cells with the goal of discovering the shift to diabetes. As Gerschenson said, “We’ve shown that you can look at white blood cells and correlate that with what’s happening in fat. That was a big finding published in 2008 and allowed us to start using white blood cells. Anything that’s minimally invasive is a good thing!”

About her work, Gerschenson remarked, “What I do is constantly dynamic. That’s something that I love — you’re always doing something different and something interesting.”

As for the AAUW grant that helped her along the way, Gerschenson said, “It makes the difference between you and somebody else. I still list it. In an era of competitive science that is so important. It’s not just that it helps you write your dissertation, but it also helps you down the road when you go on to apply for your next grant.”

For all you aspiring scientists out there, try Gerschenson’s path: work hard, follow your passion, don’t be afraid to fail, and always believe in yourself.

Mariana Gerschenson’s 1991–92 American Fellowship was sponsored by the Southeast District (CA) Endowment and the Evelyn Felice Stanton Endowment.



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