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Women Scientist Profiles

Susan Bonner-Weir, Ph.D.

Susan Bonner-Weir, Ph.D.

Dr. Susan Bonner-Weir is a senior investigator with the Joslin Diabetes Center and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Her research focuses on beta cells—cells in the pancreatic islets that produce insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body regulate levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood. If the beta cells do not secrete sufficient amounts of insulin, the result is diabetes.
Dr. Bonner-Weir, in collaboration with other researchers, has demonstrated in experimental systems that the number and size of beta cells can change, contrary to a long-held belief. Also, in the lab, she and her team have manipulated certain cells of the pancreas to become stem-cell-like in their ability to become any sort of pancreatic cell, including beta cells. If transplanted into animal models, the beta cells mature and gain the ability to respond to glucose levels. In the future, this new knowledge might be used to help patients with diabetes by restoring their ability to regulate their blood sugar levels through transplanted or regenerated beta cells.

After graduating from Rice University, Dr. Bonner-Weir earned her doctorate in biology from Case Western Reserve University. She has published more than 180 peer-reviewed papers, as well as numerous chapters and reviews. For her pioneering work on the function and regulation of beta cells, Dr. Bonner-Weir was inducted as a fellow into the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

How has mentorship (either as a mentor or mentee) shaped your career?

I had several mentors who played different roles at different times. One was my postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Art Like, a pathologist who not only introduced me to the world of pancreatic islets (I had worked before in cell biology using an insect model) but also, more important, gave me, as a mother of a 1-year-old, the opportunity to work part time. I learned how to prioritize what needed to be done and learned how to present my data.

Back in the 1970s, there were few women with young children in the diabetes field, so another important mentor was Dr. Eva Neer, who served as role model of a successful scientist with two children and a professional husband. From her, I learned the value of a role model and since have tried to be one for other woman scientists and physicians.

Probably the most important mentor was my husband and long-time collaborator Dr. Gordon Weir. With our complementary fields of expertise, we actually mentored each other as we collaborated on understanding the pancreatic islet in health and disease.

What is the career achievement of which you are most proud?

I think my greatest career achievement has been to provide much of the initial evidence of compensatory growth and turnover of the pancreatic beta cell. When I first entered the field, it was taught that one was born with all the beta cells one would have for life; the beta cells were not thought to turn over or change in number except their loss with disease. It is now clear from our work and that of many others that compensatory growth and function of beta cells occur throughout life via several different mechanisms, and that inadequate amounts of beta cells lead to dysfunctional beta cells and diabetes.

What are some of the challenges of being a scientist?

Currently one of the biggest challenges is getting and keeping funding so that one can continue to be a scientist. It is also challenging to do important original work, not just "me-too" experiments or, as Dr. Lelio Orci (one of my mentors) said, “filling in the chinks.”

What have been the most rewarding aspects of your career?

Being a practicing scientist has been my greatest reward. To think that solving puzzles and discovering new things and concepts is actually a paying job!

Being able to share this experience with younger people and instill in them the excitement of doing science is a bonus. We have always been very open to bringing in people—whether medical students, undergraduates, or even high-school students—for short-term lab experiences to introduce them to “science in action.”

What is a life achievement of which you are most proud?

The life achievement I am most proud of is having raised two well-adjusted, productive daughters who have professions they love, successful marriages, and delightful children (my grandchildren), all while having myself a fascinating career of science.

Has your research ever taken you to exotic or exciting locations?

Although the research itself has not been elsewhere, one perk of being a scientist is to be invited around the world to present one's data. It has allowed us to travel extensively. My field of research is so international that I have gained friends around the world.

If you weren’t a scientist, what other job would you have? Why?

As graduate students, we always joked about starting a restaurant if we couldn't make it in science. Of course, the career advice tests we were given in high school all indicated that I should be a forest ranger because I love natural history: insects, plants, and sea creatures. But, I would probably have been a science teacher if I hadn’t become a practicing scientist.

 


This page last updated: August 9, 2018

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