FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: AAUW Sees Gerchenson’s Star Shining Brightly

Dr. Mariana Gerchenson grew up running around a research lab. Now she’s running research labs. Meet Dr. Gerchenson: John A. Burns School of Medicine tenured Professor in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, Director of Research and Graduate Education, Chair of the Cell and Molecular Biology Graduate Program, and Deputy Director for the Center for Native and Pacific Health Disparities Research, profiled by the AAUW Blog.

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Mariana Gerschenson – Following the Fellows

“I always tell people I’m a slightly different animal because of the family I came from,” says Dr. 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 60’s, okay! – 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.” Since that young age, Gerschenson has come a long way in her research career.

Not that the journey has been easy, or is ever easy for aspiring scientists in an age marked by fierce competition for grants, with ever more people choosing industry over government and academic posts for lack of funding. Gerschenson, unintimidated by the prospects of moving around a lot, taking risks and inviting failure, pushed forward with her dream of pursuing a research career that had its grounding in clinical practicality. In other words, she wanted to study things like HIV and diabetes, so that her findings would be useful to people, not just interesting to science. In 2000, for example, Gerschenson discovered using monkey animal models 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. People were showing up in hospital rooms and a small percentage of patients back in the 90’s were dying and no one had understood why.” With this discovery, she was succeeding in her goal of using science to help tackle real world medical problems.

Gerschenson has always been interested in mitochondria. As she says, “Mitochondria are the batteries of the cells. Because they’re the batteries, you need them for everything. That’s where all your energy comes from.”

One of her current projects focuses on diabetes, specifically the shift from insulin resistance to becoming diabetic.

With a cohort of 400 children, clinical data is first obtained; glucose, metabolic parameters, insulin, etc. Blood is taken once per year. As Gerschenson told us, “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!” They’re looking into the health and function of mitochondria and oxygen consumption in cells, teasing things apart one level at a time with the goal of discovering that shift to diabetes. “There are people who do this stuff for different reasons. I know people who, they just love the science. The science is everything to them. For me I wanted to have a clinical affect at the end.”

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

She is kept very busy at the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawai`i, Manoa campus, serving as a tenured Professor in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, 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, to list a few things.

As far as the AAUW grant that helped her along the way those many years ago, Gerschenson admitted, “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.” So, for all of those aspiring scientists out there, try her path: work hard, follow your passion, don’t be afraid to fail, and always believe in yourself.

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