Dr. Mandë Holford on Science Diplomacy, International Collaboration, and Venomous Snails

Kicking off the New Year is Dr. Mandë Holford, January’s Woman of the Month. A Rockefeller alumna, Mandë is a Professor in Chemistry at Hunter College, with a scientific appointment at the American Museum of Natural History. I met Mandë through the Science Diplomacy course she co-facilitates with Jesse Ausubel and Rod Nichols at Rockefeller. The course — which starts in February — was a real eye opener for me, broadening my view of what a scientist can do with her training. But more eye opening was Mandë herself.

I believe the most effective style of mentorship is creating opportunities. So when I think about how I want to mentor, I think of how Mandë has mentored me. Every time I spot her at a meeting or talk, she’ll introduce me to the movers and shakers of the science outreach and policy world. She has helped me build a professional network and given me the confidence to believe that I deserve to be moving and shaking with the best.

It’s been my great pleasure to get to know her over the last year — including learning fun facts like how she used to sky dive for “fun.” I’m thrilled to share her insights on the role of mentorship, the importance of science diplomacy and collaboration, and the power of venomous snails.

What first brought you to science and how did that bring you to Rockefeller?
Mentoring. I wouldn’t be a scientist or a RU alum without the mentoring of my undergrad college chemistry Professor, Dr. Larry Johnson. Working in his physical chemistry lab as an undergrad changed my worldview. I fell in love with science. It was so fantastical, working with YAG lasers, making liquid nitrogen ice cream, growing glowing purple bacteria cultures. Who could resist!

When it came time to graduate, he asked me what I wanted to do next. I had no idea. He recommended I try grad school and suggested Rockefeller. As a New Yorker I applied to grad schools outside of New York City; Rockefeller was the only New York school I applied to. I wanted to escape the concrete jungle for actual grass and greener pastures, but Dr. J and the Rockefeller recruitment weekend showed me I could have green pastures on the Upper East Side.

Dr. Johnson came to my RU PhD thesis defense. He’s proof in the pudding for what a great mentor could do.

Very briefly, what does your lab study?
My lab looks for new ways to manipulate cell signaling using peptides found in the venom of marine snails. Specifically, we’re doing drug discovery and development as it pertains to pain and cancer using a very unusual source. Similar to snakes, predatory sea snails, such as cone snails, terebrids and turrids, use venom to subdue their prey. The snail venom is fast acting, specific, and very potent — all the ingredients you need to make a successful drug. Our work is very interdisciplinary, combing evolutionary biology, peptide chemistry, bioinformatics, and nanotechnology. Grad students can be scuba diving in Papua New Guinea one week then characterizing the effects of novel peptides in tumor cell models the next.

Like bench to bedside, we go from Mollusks to Medicine.

You took some time away from research after graduate school to pursue science diplomacy. What brought you to that decision and what have you taken from that experience back to the (metaphorical) bench?
A Ph.D. is powerful and it can take you many places. After getting my Ph.D. from Rockefeller I did a few things to explore how I could contribute my newfound knowledge. Science was always going to be a mainstay of my career. The question was, would I apply my expertise through research as a scientist, or outreach as a science educator working at a museum, or in as a policymaker directing/advising how science happens on a national or international scale?

I was awarded a AAAS Science & Technology Fellowship soon after graduating RU and went to Washington, D.C. to work in the Office of International Science and Engineering as a “science diplomat.” In that year, I traveled to 7 different countries to set up collaborations and projects for American and foreign scientists. I learned how science is conducted outside the U.S. and established early partnerships with collaborators I still work with today.

My AAAS Fellowship literally firmed the idea of science as a global endeavor and how important it is to think broadly about the impacts of the work you’re doing. My lab has several very close collaborators in Paris, Italy, Russia, and Germany. I think it’s important for early career scientist to grasp the power and potential of conducting science on a global scale. That was my major back-to-the-bench experience.

Have your training experiences as a woman of color in science impacted or influenced the way you now lead your lab, if at all?
I know for several people, being from an underrepresented group (whether ethnicity or gender) has been problematic as they pursued their scientific career. This hasn’t been the case with me.

I recognize there is a substantial gap in the number of women and people of color in science, and I think there isn’t a clear answer or solution for how we improve those numbers. In my group, I try to do what my parents taught me: work hard and play hard to achieve your vision of success. I think that’s gender-neutral training. But as always the details are what need to be explored when we try to level the playing field.

As my career develops, I’m becoming more aware of the need to try to help where I can. Could be my career or my recently becoming a mother. You see things a bit differently when someone is that dependent on you.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t be afraid to fail. And don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. We’re all ignorant at some point. The really smart people know that and try to become less ignorant about things we want to be good at.

And now I’ll plug the Science Diplomacy seminar coming up. What are you most excited for in the series and why should Rockefeller students and post docs take the class?
Cool! This year we’re trying a new experiment, focusing on one specific Science Diplomacy theme to thread the six seminars and guest lectures together. The theme this year is migration of people, ideas, and technology.

When we think about the migration of ideas, Science Diplomacy can dictate how we address issues as wide ranging as the weaponization of genetic editing (CRISPR technology), security of cyber spaces, and equitable diffusion of personalized medicine. In 2016 we’ve seen a massive refugee migration from Syria, and the tensions it’s caused in Europe particularly. We’ve also had to deal with the Zika virus and its spread in North, South, and Latin Americas. And we’ve had the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba. How can science deal with these threats/opportunities and what policy initiatives are being proposed?

This year, with our guest lectures we go from Russia versus U.S. nuclear buildup (William Perry) to human and animal migration in Cuba — complete with a recent tour of the Cuba! Exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (Ana Luz Porzecanksi) — to science at the poles (Melody Brown Burkins) to people and peace (Torsten Wiesel and Asi Burak). It’ll be a great course and will share some of the thrill I experienced while a AAAS Fellow in D.C. learning how science operates on a global scale.

Photo courtesy of Denis Finn at the American Museum of Natural History


Interested in interviewing an outstanding woman who is currently at or an alumna of Rockefeller? We’re currently accepting your nominations at wiser(at)rockefeller.edu or mzaringhal(at)rockefeller.edu.

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