June 24, 2009

Influential, Encouragable, and Genuine Man in Science: Dr. Jim Maher

Jim MaherName:  Jim Maher
Hometown:  Madison, Wisconsin
Education: BS Molecular Biology 1983, UW- Madison
PhD Molecular Biology 1988, UW- Madison
Postdoc 1988-1991, Caltech
 Current Status: Professor and Vice-Chair, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Mayo Graduate School: Director, NIH IMSD and PREP programs at Mayo: Married (Laura, BS Social Work) in 1983.  Daughters Elizabeth (19, rising Junior in Journalism, University of Minnesota- Twin Cities) and Christina (15, rising Junior, Mayo High School)

 When did you start work/school at Mayo Clinic? Summer, 1995

 How did you become interested in or hear about Mayo Clinic? I was working as an Assistant Professor at the Eppley Cancer Institute at the University of Nebraska medical Center in Omaha.  A friend from Caltech visited Mayo in Rochester on a job interview.  He was impressed and sent me a note that I might be interested.  I responded to a position announcement in molecular medicine, came for a visit, and then found that a basic science faculty opening in biochemistry and molecular biology was even more attractive.  I had a fine position at Nebraska, but Mayo’s generous offer included some very unusual features that attracted me here.  The chance to continue to recruit and mentor PhD students (one of my favorite roles) was very important.

 What do you do here at Mayo Clinic? What is your area of specialty? My primary responsibility at Mayo is to act as a basic scientist in biochemistry and molecular biology and serve as principal investigator on competitive national grants from NIH and other funding organizations.  I spend more than half of my time in this role.  My laboratory (GU16) studies three general areas: 1) the origin of DNA stiffness and the proteins that enhance DNA flexibility, 2) artificial control of gene expression using small RNA molecules, 3) unusual cancers caused by defects in metabolic genes.  Through this work I serve as mentor for a variety of undergraduate and graduate students.  I have mentored 14 students to the PhD degree, with two more in process.  Part of being a basic scientist at Mayo is teaching.  I co-direct the fall Biochemistry core course for all graduate students, and teach a bi-annual course on DNA/protein interactions.  I also consult with Mayo staff interested in other scientific and medical problems.  This has led to our projects on aptamers applications in multiple sclerosis and our work on cancers involving metabolic defects.

 In addition, because of my interest in graduate education, I share responsibilities for serving the leadership of Mayo Graduate School as one of the Associate Deans.  This role involves overseeing strategic planning and management of the school and its ~150 PhD and MD/PhD students, along with SURF and MS students.  I chair the PhD admissions committee and very much enjoy this role.

 Since 2004 I have been fortunate to serve as director for two NIH grants that support diversity in future PhD scientists training at Mayo.  The PREP grant (postbaccalaureate research education) serves B.S. and B.A. graduates for 1-2 years of additional research training and education prior to acceptance into PhD or MD/PhD programs.  The IMSD grant (Initiative to Maximize Student Development) serves URM PhD and MD/PhD trainees in Mayo Graduate School.  Together, the two grants provide more than $500,000 in annual funds for student stipends and partial support of a management team including myself, and Drs. Karen Hedin and Dennis Mays. 

Do you participate in any organizations, societies, clubs, memberships, professions at Mayo Clinic and/or Rochester community?  I am a committed Christian and enjoy the opportunity to share how a personal relationship with Jesus Christ continues to affect every area of my life.  I serve the congregation of Autumn Ridge Church in a variety of ways, including as a musician (bass), lay teacher on the relationship between science, scripture and spirituality, and as the leader of various special projects including an original music CD in 2000 that raised $15K for Rochester Area Habitat for Humanity, the committee that oversaw design and construction of the church’s $14M campus in 2005, and management of the church’s annual Arts Series hosting national artists.

How does working at Mayo Clinic Rochester location differ from your hometown or where you attended school? Rochester is the smallest place we’ve ever lived (compared to Madison, Los Angeles, and Omaha).   This took some getting used to.  I tell the story of being stunned when we moved here in 1995 and there were only two bike stores in the phone book when I went to find a part for my daughter’s bike.  I calmed down when I realized that I probably only really needed one bike store.  I dearly miss Madison, which is both a state capital and home of a huge university.  I miss undergrads and the vitality and challenge to authority that they bring (these would both be good for Mayo Clinic).  I don’t miss the traffic of LA or Omaha.  I look forward to the day what a strong University of Minnesota- Rochester will attract thousands of undergrads to Rochester.  Although I enjoyed the lovely Southern CA weather, I love the seasons of the Midwest.  Omaha and LA were both more diverse places than Rochester.  However, that is changing and I am proud to be part of that change even as a white male.  I enjoy hearing from some of our students that Rochester is a national destination for Somali and Hmong people because these communities are better established here than in most large US cities.

Do you consider yourself diverse? My ethnicity and genetic heritages are not diverse for the Midwest.  I tend to think quite differently from the corporate side of Mayo Clinic (likely due to my training as a skeptic at the University of Wisconsin).    I am committed to enhancing the diversity of U.S. science my enriching the training of excellent URM students.  This will help American research to be effective and creative.

Do you feel that diversity plays a role in the education you are receiving (grad/med school, IMSD) or as a professional at Mayo Clinic?  Learning from the perspectives of other cultures and races is a tremendous experience.  It is one of my favorite aspects of directing our IMSD and PREP programs.  Getting beyond scientific training (job #1) to hear about student perspectives and insights in politics, public policy, spirituality, family relationships, and public service is a great experience.

Do you think Mayo Clinic and/or Rochester, MN and/or your program is diverse?  Despite excellent efforts, only certain training programs at Mayo reflect the degree of diversity seen nationally in America.  Our medical school and graduate school and SURF undergrad program are doing quite well in this regard.  There is room for improvement in our allied health staff and particularly our physician and scientist staff.  We believe that creating a diverse “campus” academic atmosphere at Mayo is a key step to recruitment and retention of students and workforce that reflect our national diversity.

Final reflections::::: My colleagues sometimes think it is weird that I tell my Mayo students that my goal as a faculty member is not to try to convince them (URM or majority) to continue on for a career at Mayo, but to leave the institution after training and thrive wherever their career leads them- telling the story of their remarkable experience as a trainee at Mayo.  This may be the best way to share with the world the great opportunities to enhance diversity while training in the very unusual and stimulating Mayo research environment.

Interview taken by Brittany Alexander and Jessica Silva

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