Breaking Through What’s Holding You Back: Dr. Malú Gámez Tansey on Science, Academia, and Mentorship

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

Malú Gámez Tansey is a scientist, boss lady, mother, and mentor, who has done what very few people have been able to do. She’s maneuvered between the biotech sector and academia. She juggled years of postdoctoral work, completing four different post-docs, with two small children, while her husband finished his medical school residency. She endured the death of a mentor. She became a tenured professor of physiology and the director of the Center for Neurodysfunction and Inflammation at the Emory University School of Medicine. Then, she was approached by another institution, and through a multimillion dollar gift from the Fixel family, she became the first endowed chair and director of the Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease (CTRND) at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

Tansey has shattered through glass ceilings keeping women and minorities out of careers in the life sciences, and defied the odds by attaining a leadership role in neuroscience as a woman of Hispanic descent. She’s had to work ten times as hard as her colleagues to overcome stereotypes associated with being a Latina. Through perseverance, enthusiasm, and determination, Malú proved that she was worth taking seriously. Despite her many accomplishments and substantial scientific studies, Malú treats her staff and trainees to fun social outings, finds time to enjoy travel, and supports a large scientific family “that works hard and plays harder.”

Malú G. Tansey is more than a leader in neuroscience, she is a phenomenon. It takes an exceptional strength, optimism, and dedication to fulfill the journey that she’s chosen. She has the experience and wisdom to reveal what it takes to overcome deep-rooted cultural obstacles, juggle work and family, make tough decisions, and have fun all the while. She is an inspiration for anyone who feels there is something holding them back. I had the privilege of working in the same department as Malú at Emory University, and the honor of being able to ask her how she’s navigated various challenges, including balancing her career success with family and personal life, and what she thinks the future holds in terms of a cure for neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Tansey’s Early Life Set Her On the Path to Science

Malú is a nickname given to her by her father and is a short version of her elegant legal name, which is Maria de Lourdes. Raised on the border in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, by a mother and father who both had professional degrees and valued education, Malú was encouraged to excel academically in any direction she desired. Malú credits her biology teacher, Margaret Jackson, at her all-girls Catholic high school, for jump-starting her love for science by inspiring her to attend a National Science Foundation summer camp at UC Davis. This experience got her hooked on science fairs throughout her high school years, eventually leading up to her winning the Westinghouse Science Talent Search as a senior. Stanford University was her next conquest, as a biology major on a pre-med track.

You Thought Having Two Postdocs Is Rough...

When Malú was a postdoc in the mid 1990s, it was common to do a couple of postdocs in order to move towards research independence and gain specific skills for your line of research. Today, it is still common for young scientists to need more than one postdoctoral position to be competitive enough in academia or even biotech. In my experience as a graduate student in neuroscience and working with many other graduate students, this need to complete multiple postdocs deters scientists from moving into basic science research in academia. It’s a long road with little immediate pay-off. Malú finished four different postdocs, and has some sound advice on how to get the most out of those experiences:

“While it was not my plan to have 4 different postdocs, life throws curve balls at you and you’ve got to be ready to follow plan B. The key is to have something to show for the time and effort you spend – a deliverable. Whether you end up staying or leaving academia after your postdoc, the key is to finish what you start: solve the problem, persevere, and overcome obstacles.”

One such obstacle was devastating; the sudden death of her third postdoc mentor, John Merlie about seven months after she started working with him. He suffered a fatal heart attack at the young age of 49, however he served as an incredible mentor to Malú before his untimely passing, giving her sufficient guidance to complete and publish their pending studies. As life closes a door, a window opens, and Malú moved to a lab across the hall for her fourth and final postdoc, where the magic happened that led her into neuroscience.

Moving In and Out of Biotech and Back to Academia

Malú started out on a pre-med track at Stanford, but as life unfolds and fate plays her hand, she held off on med school and worked as a research tech while her husband went to medical school. This could seem like a setback, but it was the impetus that moved her to fall in love with research, so instead she applied to graduate school. She joined the Integrative Physiology Ph.D. program at University of Texas Southwestern, then started her train of postdocs, first at UTSW then at Washington University.

Six years of postdoc work later, with two small children and a husband finishing his neurology residency, Malú decided she wanted to stay in science, but work fewer hours for more money - aka the American dream. The biotech sector served her well in this regard, especially after six years of a postdoc’s humble earnings. She became the head of the Chemical Genetics group at Xencor, a private biotechnology company in Monrovia, California. She left biotech after two years with two different companies where she saw the worst and the best, adding, “the key is to pay attention to the scientific leadership of a place!”

Three major reasons she left industry, returning to academia, were missing hypothesis-driven science, mentoring students, and wanting greater job security. Industry positions are volatile, however Malú took a myriad of significant skills away with her, including learning how to hire, fire, and manage people and the value of celebrating work well-done, regardless of whether a project is killed or advanced.

“I learned that failure is an opportunity for feedback so you can get it right the next time – all these lessons have served me very well in academia.”

Industry vs Academia - A Keen Way to Decide

As far as how to decide between a career in academia or industry, Malú suggests, “First know thyself. Are you a sprinter or a marathon runner? If you are sprinting, you’re going full throttle for a short distance and have to be laser-focused to go from point A to point B. Once you are done, you can sprint again over and over. If you are a marathon runner, you must be prepared to go a long distance so you’ve got to pace yourself, stop for water or refuel, and can probably afford to stop and get ice cream or smell the flowers along the way.”

“In biotech you are sprinting and working on different projects (often optimizing assays or testing new and improved drugs in various models) and you don’t have the luxury of getting distracted by the interesting biology (or why the assay didn’t work or if the data is trying to tell you something interesting!). In academia, you are running a marathon, and the pace varies depending on the terrain, how you’re feeling physically and mentally, and you must set your own pace, be self-driven, and sometimes dig deep to find reasons to stay and keep going on the long arduous path (i.e. your trainees are running alongside you!) in pursuit of that burning question that may one day lead you to a big discovery. That is why in academia, the journey is ALL important, as the destination is far off and not everyone makes it to the finish line. But it is clear that you can do good science in either place, IF the scientific leadership is good and promotes your career development.”

Choosing a Mentor and Confidence is Key

Malú ’s advice to any young scientist in training is to be proactive in finding mentors who can help you grow and guide you in specific areas. She explains, “The best mentor is one who can be honest and constructive in their assessments of you but doesn’t destroy you in the process – s/he helps you manage negative thoughts and the “impostor syndrome” a lot of us (and most women) have which holds us back in so many aspects of life – social, personal, and professional.”

“Acting with confidence comes first and the feelings of confidence come later, often with lots of experience,” Malú shares lessons from Russ Harris’ Confidence Gap: A guide to overcoming fear and self-doubt, in which fear and skepticism is described as an evolutionarily conserved human trait meant to keep a species alive in the wild among life-threatening situations. The driving point Malú imparts is that attempting to rid yourself of fear and negative thoughts is impossible. However, we shouldn’t get hooked by them or let them determine our course of action. It’s best to acknowledge them and let them go, to be able to continue on your journey with confidence.

Words of wisdom from Malú to all future scientists (or anyone really):

“The best advice is to live by your values, not by your goals. Goals are worth having, but no one can guarantee that you’ll reach your destination. Focus on the journey, what you are learning, who you’re meeting and teaching along the way – these are the people who will shape your ideas and mold your life. Russ Harris says “First, act with confidence and the feelings of confidence will eventually follow”. Life throws curve balls at you and you’ve got to be able to spin on a dime, get up again and again after something or someone knocks you down, reinvent yourself, and never forget that someone gave YOU an opportunity to prove yourself so do it for someone else before your final curtain call.”

Thoughts on the Diversity Gap in Science

It became clear to Malú that in order for her to do higher impact neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration research and to help her trainees grow, she needed more resources and opportunities to proceed in new innovative scientific directions. She recognized this type of opportunity comes from moving to another institution, explaining, “while most places are very good at recruiting new faculty, they aren’t typically very good at retaining them and this is especially true of female and diverse faculty.”

She proudly accepted the position as endowed chair and director of the Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease at the University of Florida College of Medicine. Working collaboratively with multiple other center directors, many of them white men, Malú acknowledges the need to increase diversity in the faculty at research institutions, if under-represented minorities are to consider a career in the biomedical fields, and will make this a top priority in future recruitment efforts for her center. The National Institutes of Health support this effort to improve inclusion of women and minorities, especially blacks and Hispanics, in science fields.

Her own experience sounds exhausting and frustrating, “As a Hispanic woman in science, the biggest challenge has been the lack of leadership roles offered to people like me. I’ve had to fight the stereotypes associated with being a Latina by working ten times as hard as the next person (because most people think Hispanics are inherently lazy), keeping my emotions in check (because people believe we are the spice of life and can fire up quickly), and learning how to be a giver without being stepped on (because people think of Hispanics as subservient with minimal leadership abilities).”

“I’ve also had to learn the hard way that despite one’s best intentions to pay it forward and help others along the way to advance their own professional mission, some people are takers and only interested in advancing their own agendas. The book Give and Take by Adam Grant is a must-read for anyone in a leadership role that can teach you how to recognize and deal with givers, matchers, takers, and charismatic givers (fakers).”

Working Parents of Young Kids Have the Toughest Job

Malú is no stranger to the grind. As she puts it, “Working parents of young children have the toughest job – a day shift and a night shift followed by more of the same day after day and on weekends, but most of us would not have had it any other way and have no regrets when we look back at our choices to start a science career and a family at the same time.” Her secret to surviving the relentless grind is to “be passionate about your work and your family and to surround yourself with people who can lend a hand when you need it - like a relay team - at work or at home.” Like other working moms, she had to finish her postdoc in an 8-hour day (a schedule considered meager for a postdoc) and made every minute count before rushing to the daycare to pick up her kids. Her kids are now grown and she appreciates a good night’s sleep and the importance of self-care; massage therapy, walking her dog, and regular exercise (which she says was most recently inspired by my last 30 day fitness challenge!)

The Future of Brain Inflammation and Cures for Neurodegenerative Diseases

Inflammation has been a hot topic, considered a primary culprit in many disease states of the brain and body. Malú ’s research focuses on the question of how our immune system protects us or predisposes us to neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. I asked her to comment on what she thinks the future holds in terms of a better understanding of how inflammation affects neurodegeneration, based on her expert opinion being in the front line of the current research.

“Because of infectious disease, there has been strong evolutionary pressure for humans to develop genes and gene variants associated with strong immune responses. This was clearly important to keep your young self healthy and get you to reproductive age so you could pass on your genes to the next generation. But because we are living longer, our immune system ages, gets tired, and drops the ball. The professional debris-eating immune cells that are in charge of vacuuming dead or aggregated proteins and keeping the roads clear in your brain start malfunctioning as we age. But what we now think creates the perfect storm and increases the risk for neurodegeneration (ND) is specific lifestyle choices (bad diet, inactivity, etc) and the high incidence of chronic systemic diseases like metabolic syndrome/obesity, T2D, arthritis, etc.”

“In fact, the greatest obstacle to finding a cure for ND is that we are not able to diagnose these early enough, so most therapies are being used too late, and naturally they cannot reverse formation of toxic aggregates or restore lost neurons and their connections. But the good news is that as we recognize that genetics is not sufficient to get the more prevalent sporadic forms of these age-related diseases, and environment/lifestyle is also important, PREVENTION is going to be the key – just like for cardiovascular disease and cancer. Lowering stress, a good diet, and regular exercise are going to be the key to lowering risk for NDs.”

According to Malú, neuroscientists would have realized this decades ago if they had not wrongly believed the brain was ‘immune privileged,’ in other words protected from immune attack and not susceptible to the harmful effects of inflammation in the body. Now that it is widely accepted that the immune privileged concept was wrong and the brain should be viewed as immune specialized, she believes we are in a position to come up with therapeutic approaches targeting immune systems to restore or renew the cells that modulate inflammation, to a younger and more functional state.

Current standard therapies simply try to block or suppress inflammation. Neuroimmunologists are currently testing novel therapies that improve the efficiency of the immune response in the body to treat autoimmune diseases like Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), Crohn’s, and psoriasis. Malú is highly optimistic that leveraging this knowledge will allow us to delay or suppress the harmful effects of aging, and the simultaneous chronic inflammation associated with aging, on the brain, in hopes that Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and perhaps other fatal neurodegenerative diseases like ALS are treatable or preventable one day soon.

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