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Science Alumni Profile: Mass General Geneticist Sue Slaugenhaupt '85

posted on 06/17/2011

by Mary Ellen Collins

Sue Slaugenhaupt graduated from Eckerd in 1985 with a B.S. degree in Biology. She is an Associate Professor of Neurology at the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. Dr. Slaugenhaupt is the 2005 recipient of the Kadel Alumni Medal for Outstanding Career Achievement. She is a member of the Dean's Council on Science at Eckerd College and is a member of Eckerd's National Advisory Council.

Geneticist Sue Slaugenhaupt '85 learned about Eckerd College during a Pennsylvania to Florida road trip with her parents when she was a high school sophomore.

"We were driving down Route 95 to visit my grandparents, and at every 'Welcome to the State' rest area, I picked up brochures from different colleges. There was no Internet then so I filled out the request for more information cards and sent them in." When the aspiring marine biologist received a packet of materials from Eckerd, her decision came easily.

"I said this place looks awesome. It didn't have a formal marine biology program, but it had the sciences and the location on the water. I applied for and got early decision - it was the only place I applied to - and I never set foot on the campus until my parents dropped me off at the beginning of my first year."

She majored in biology and stuck with her career dream until a genetics course with Professor Bill Roess presented an exciting new world to consider.

"It was fascinating. The whole process is so elegant and it made so much sense to me. I said, 'That's it. This is what I'm going to do.'"

Slaugenhaupt got her Ph.D. in human genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, and says, "It was a relatively new field and a really exciting time. They were just starting to map human disease genes and my advisor was on the cutting edge. The entire field of human genetics has occurred while I've been doing it."

A postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School allowed her to move from doing statistical genetics on the computer to molecular genetics in the lab. She continued her career there, and today is an Associate Professor of Neurology and a founding member of Mass General's Center for Human Genetic Research. With a focus on mitral valve prolapse and two rare neurological diseases - familial dysautonomia and mucolipidosis type IV - she does research to determine the genetic basis of those diseases in order to create new therapies and treatments. When asked what accomplishment she's most proud of, she says, "It has to be when we actually found the gene for familial dysautonomia. We spent years looking for that gene, and we found it in my lab."

Although budget cuts have made it more difficult to get funding for research, Slaugenhaupt is committed to making discoveries that will ultimately enhance patient care; and to educating young physicians and scientists who will follow in her footsteps. She remains connected to Eckerd because her college friends are still her closest friends today. And she's been able to open doors for current students by writing a National Institute of Health grant last year that brought ten of them to Mass General for 10-week, paid summer internships.

"Because Eckerd is a freestanding, undergraduate college, there are fewer opportunities for students to work in big labs. There are a lot of kids at Eckerd who are interested in medical school or biomedical research... and who wouldn't want to say they worked at Harvard?" Although the grant is not available this year, she says last year's students so impressed the faculty they worked with, that five of her colleagues are paying to bring another group of students back this summer.

Picking up that Eckerd brochure at the rest stop was definitely a providential move for Slaugenhaupt, and she's enthusiastic about the plans for the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences that will take the College to the next level in science education.

"Science is the key to our future. We need alternative energy sources. We need to fix health care. We need to deal with global warming. We need science. Eckerd has built an amazing program, and now it will be cutting edge with the new building and the renovation of the existing space. The faculty is so excited - it's going to be amazing for them and for the students."

This feature is the sixteenth in a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni and friends who embody the emphasis of the Sciences at Eckerd College. Learn more about the Many Experiences, One Spirit: The Campaign for Eckerd College and the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences, a Campaign priority.

Read Previous Science Profiles:
Johnny Wardman '07
Brad Pendley '87
Aaron O'Connell '05
Jeffrey Ackley '08
Marion Marshall White '74
Jane A. Petro '68
Olester Benson '74
Rebecca Helm '07
Michael Depledge
Quinton Zondervan '92 and Vincent Coljee '90
Carlos Barbas '85
Paul Cheney '69
Harry Johns '90
Patrick Griffin
Jeffrey Dodge '84

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