CDB Connections: Maureen Gannon, January 2022
Welcome to CDB Connections, an interview series from CDB’s DEI committee. This interview features Dr. Maureen Gannon, Associate Dean for Faculty Development (VUMC), Professor of Medicine, Professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, and Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology. This interview was conducted and written by Maggie Fye, of the CDB DEI communications subcommittee. This series of interviews is meant to present the diversity in our community and department and to celebrate the experiences and backgrounds of everyone in it. If you are interested in contributing to a future interview, please contact the CDB DEI committee.
Can you briefly describe your “science journey?” Please include your current/previous education, and details about current research or work.
I am originally from New York City and did all of my training in New York; I got my bachelor’s degree at Molloy College on Long Island. I got my master’s at Adelphi University, also on Long Island, and did my master’s in the biology department there doing breast cancer research. I worked as a research technician for 3 years at Cornell Medical College in Manhattan. While there, I discovered I was interested in pursuing a faculty position at an academic medical center, which would be more impactful in terms of human health. I got my PhD in Cell & Developmental Biology at Cornell Medical College. For my PhD thesis work, I studied tissue interactions during early embryonic development that regulate the formation of the heart tube. For my postdoc, I accepted a position in Madison, Wisconsin to study intestinal development. I was passionate about that because while I was in grad school I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, so I was very interested in learning about intestine differentiation and regeneration. However, a couple of months before I was supposed to start in that lab, the PI decided to move his lab to California and I did not want to go there. My PhD mentor had actually moved from Cornell to Vanderbilt, so I contacted him and he flew me to Nashville to meet the CDB faculty. I met Chris Wright who was studying gut and pancreas development, so I came to Vanderbilt and did my postdoc with Chris for five years. It wasn’t what I originally planned, but it worked out well. I started looking for faculty positions, and Vanderbilt said they were interested in having me join the faculty and asked if I was interested in staying here. It all worked out well and I’ve been a faculty member here for 20 years. My lab studies basic developmental questions about transcription factors and signaling molecules that regulate the number of insulin-producing cells in the adult.
What made you decide on your path through science?
I have never wanted to be anything but a scientist (except maybe a Broadway singer!). It was the only serious career I ever thought about. I can’t remember when that started! But I didn’t always want to do health-related science. I originally wanted to be a paleontologist. I used to dig up my backyard and an abandoned alley at the end of the block in Queens where I grew up. I would dig, looking for fossils. I still collect fossils and have them in my office! I used to write book reports on evolution in elementary school. I always really loved that but when I was twelve years old, my dad, who was a Deacon in the Catholic church, asked me what I wanted to be and I said, “a paleontologist.” He told me I wasn’t going to get into heaven if I was a paleontologist- I needed to do something that helped people. That was quite shocking to me as a child, so I thought about it and thought, “what can I do?” I was always curious about how things worked, and I knew genes were involved in evolution- so I thought maybe I could transfer my interest to that to help people. I decided at age twelve that I would do genetic research and look into human disease.
What are your future goals in science?
Going back to the theme of helping people, I feel like my research might ultimately someday help someone- but about 10 years ago, my chair in the Department of Medicine asked me if I might become the vice chair for faculty development for the MD and PhD scientists who mostly do research. I was in that role for 8-9 years, and I really loved it. Helping people figure out how to establish their independent careers, what they needed to do to get tenure or promotions, mentoring- I really loved it and felt like I was helping people right then and there and not in the future. A couple years ago the position opened for Associate Dean for faculty development. I’ve been doing that for a few years now. That’s something I’ve become really passionate about and I’d like to finish my career with more in terms of faculty affairs and administrative work- helping and supporting faculty at an even wider level.
What makes you passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion?
I told you earlier that I grew up in Queens, and Queens in particular is a real melting pot of different cultures and immigrant populations, first-gen people going to college. And that’s how I grew up, so to me that’s normal; that you’re with a whole bunch of different cultures, traditions, faiths, and that you all learn from each other and hang out together. I went to a very mixed school, so I feel like that was my upbringing and that changed how I viewed the world. That had an impact on me. Being immersed in an institution where there’s a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and traditions and that we all share and learn from each other and appreciate the value of each other’s background- that’s something I’ve always loved. I grew up with friends from all over the world, and we ate their food and learned their traditions. I feel like in the workplace that’s also very important. Having different cultures and backgrounds, appreciating what everybody brings to the table. No one tradition or culture is better than another and we all have real value to contribute. That enriches not only the science, that we bring different perspectives to answering questions, but also because we spend so much time at work. Having that environment to me is so enriching and energizing and exciting. So I feel like I thrive on that and I don’t think I’d want to be in a place where there wasn’t that diversity. Even when I was looking for a church here in Nashville, I went around and in places where everybody looked like me, I decided I didn’t want to go there. So I picked a church that was really diverse and when it was time to send my son to school I picked a school that was really diverse. I wanted him to have that same experience I had growing up. I think it’s really important and establishes your worldview.
What do you like to do outside of science?
I do a lot of things! My son is 18 now and in college but before that, he was an Eagle Scout. I was the den leader when he was in Cub Scouts and in Boy Scouts I was a merit badge counselor. We did some fun, scary, adventurous trips I wouldn’t have done otherwise. For myself, I do Irish step dancing- I have class once a week. I do shows and also compete in Irish dancing competitions. I also sing with my church choir and in shows, and I compete in singing at the Irish dancing competitions. I play guitar, and draw, and paint.
Could you please describe any impactful experiences you’ve had in diversity, equity, and inclusion work?
I previously did some culturally-aware mentoring training that Linda Sealy initiated. I did that maybe 3 years ago or so; it was a 2-day workshop, and it was so fantastic. It was really helpful in thinking about how we can talk about issues of DEI with members of our lab, with other faculty, and how we can be more intentional about our efforts- especially when I’m recruiting faculty. I’ve done inclusive excellence and unconscious bias training. I think all those workshops and learning experiences we have have helped me be more aware and pay more attention and not be afraid to talk about things. I always felt like I had to walk on eggshells and during Covid when my lab couldn’t be together and we were on Zoom, and George Floyd’s murder and other events were happening, we had some really intense but important discussions in the lab. I would send out some things to read, like CoDI in CDB, and I would’ve never felt comfortable enough to do that if I hadn’t done that training, so I think that was helpful. I participated yesterday in the CDB conversation on “Tokenism vs. Representation” and they’re difficult conversations but I think it’s fantastic that CDB is doing those things, and when I can participate I will. Even though it makes me a little uncomfortable, it’s the only way we’ll get better. I think there’s always more we can do, but I’m really grateful for all we are doing.
CDB Connections Interview with Maureen Gannon, January 2022.
Interview, text, and editing by Maggie Fye.