Alumni Spotlight: Florence Marlow
Written by Hannah Hankins, Graduate Student, Department of Biological Sciences
Florence Marlow is currently an Associate Professor in the Departments of Developmental & Molecular Biology and Neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY. Dr. Marlow is an alumna of Vanderbilt University where she received her Ph.D. in the lab of Lilianna Solnica-Krezel in the Department of Molecular Biology (now the Department of Biological Sciences). In this interview, Dr. Marlow discusses the importance of finding the perfect mentor and having fun doing science.
When did you attend Vanderbilt and what did you study?
Florence: I was in the Molecular Biology Department [now Biological Sciences] and I graduated in 2003. I studied zebrafish genetics, specifically I looked at how cells move in the gastrulating embryo. It turns out this is regulated in part by the planar cell polarity pathway, which we didn’t know at the beginning so we had a lot to learn and learned a lot along the way.
What has been your career path since leaving Vanderbilt?
Florence: I left Vanderbilt to do a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania with Mary Mullins. Then I switched from the gastrula to the even earlier embryo and to the ovary to look at how the first axis of the oocyte, and eventually the embryo, is established during the first polarity decision. I worked hard as a postdoc and as a graduate student and had extremely supportive advisors, which is very important. I applied for several faculty positions and was lucky enough to be invited for interviews. At the end of the process, I was offered a few positions, which was a nice position to be in. Then I had to decide where to go, which was a lot of fun.
Did you know going into graduate school that you wanted to run your own lab one day?
Florence: I probably was less savvy than students today. I was really just thinking I wanted to keep doing science. I didn’t really think about running the lab so much. I just knew I didn’t want to stop doing research when I entered graduate school.
What are you researching now?
Florence: We continue to work on maternal control of early development and how the first axis is established. We have also branched out and look at polarity in neurons and we look at the proteins that prevent neurodegeneration. We have identified some proteins that are required in very specific subsets of neurons to prevent their degeneration.
What has been your greatest “Eureka!” moment?
Florence: I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that. Hopefully I haven’t had it yet. I think the most satisfying thing now for me is seeing my students and watching the light go on and they get it and they’re excited. I love knowing that they go to lab everyday with enthusiasm just because they have to know the answer. I love seeing that and it really makes me happy. I really think I have the best job in the world. I really enjoy learning something new each day.
What was it like going from the mentee to the mentor?
Florence: It’s a lot of fun. I think I was well prepared beginning with my Ph.D. training at Vanderbilt. As a senior graduate student, I worked with younger students so that was an introduction to mentoring. I would teach them and guide them and work with them very closely, but I was sheltered from having the full responsibility since it was of course Lila’s [former graduate advisor] responsibility - it was a protected opportunity to practice mentoring. I also worked with undergraduates at Vanderbilt. It was nice for the undergraduates and also nice for me in terms of acquiring some mentoring skills. The same was true at the University of Pennsylvania. I worked with several undergraduate thesis students as part of a large scale genetic screen that provided a lot of opportunities to mentor and direct, all while having the protection of my advisor really having the responsibility, but giving me the freedom to experience that. Those experiences combined made it easier because I was never in an environment where I was inward-directed and just focused on what I was doing. All of my graduate and postdoc research was very interactive and I think that it prepared me well.
What is the daily life of a principal investigator (PI) like?
Florence: I can only tell you about my daily life as a PI. I am really lucky because I’m at a really supportive institution. I do teach, not as much as people have to teach at undergraduate institutions, but I do some teaching, but not every day. I teach every day in terms of mentoring my students, but not in a formal classroom setting. I still do research. I will try to always do that. It helps me keep in touch with the people who work with me in the lab. I do a lot of reading. Lila told me I should read at least a paper a day and I listened to her. Sometimes I have to read more. I’m writing a grant now, so there’s a lot of grant writing. There are some administrative things I have to do. It’s not an easy job, but it’s a rewarding job. I travel some to scientific conferences and occasionally to give seminars, which is really fun because I meet people doing research at other places who I can share my work with, get their feedback, and learn about their science.
Are you able to have a good work-life balance?
Florence: I think so. I have three children. I had them all when I was a graduate student at Vanderbilt. I had one prior to graduate school and my family grew as I got closer to graduation so it was always part of the process for me. I never had a shock that some people experience when they don’t have children and then you add them to the equation. I have to work hard at this job, but I absolutely love it so it doesn’t feel like work.
What are some skills that you gained from graduate school that has aided you in your success and what are some skills you had to gain elsewhere?
Florence: The Vanderbilt curriculum had many opportunities to share my work and also to present literature in journal club. There were opportunities to interact and discuss science and my thoughts and questions. Gaining comfort in asking questions was definitely something I acquired during graduate school. Lila always gave me freedom to explore. There was a lot of writing drafts of papers and a lot scientific discussion. It was a wonderful environment she created in the lab. I got to refine these skills during my postdoc. For skills I acquired elsewhere, I would say organization. I am very organized. I didn’t appreciate this until I was running a lab. I think it’s more innate though.
What advice do you have for graduate students who are interested in pursuing a career in academia?
Florence: Have fun doing your science, think and work really hard. Focus on questions that are exciting to you and motivate you to work harder than makes sense to anyone else in the world. Put in 110% and hopefully you will also have a mentor who is putting in 110%. Find your perfect mentor - everyone is looking for the one perfect mentor, but I think that there is a perfect mentor for everyone and it’s not the same person/type of mentor for everyone. If you do that, I think everything will be okay. It won’t be easy, but it will work if you focus on the science.