Maureen Gannon, Ph.D.
Dr. Gannon grew up in Queens, New York. She received her B.S. in biology from Molloy College and her M.S. in biology from Adelphi University, both on Long Island. Her thesis work was conducted in Dr. David Bader’s lab at Cornell University, where she received her Ph.D. in cell biology and anatomy in 1995. Dr. Gannon pursued postdoctoral training in Dr. Chris Wright’s laboratory at Vanderbilt University, studying the role of the Pdx1 and HNF6 transcription factors in pancreas development. She is currently Professor and Vice Chair for Faculty Development in the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Dr. Gannon is also the 2017–2018 chair of the American Diabetes Association (ADA) science session planning committee. She was elected an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellow in 2015, and she has received funding from JDRF, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), ADA, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The Gannon lab studies genes and pathways that regulate the number of insulin-producing cells throughout the life of the organism — under normal conditions and under physiological stress. Their projects involve understanding embryonic pancreas development as well as beta cell plasticity following cues such as injury, pregnancy, weight gain, or high-fat diet. They use mouse models of diabetes to develop approaches to augment beta cell mass and promote regeneration.How has mentorship shaped your career?
I have been lucky to have interactive mentors who have also become very good friends. While working on my master’s degree, I had two mentors who shared a lab and became father figures to me. From there, I worked as a technician for three years for a woman who was an excellent role model for work-life balance. She had children and was very active in her home life and hobbies while running a lab. During my doctoral training, I worked with David Bader, who served as an excellent role model of someone who loves science and never lost that childlike enthusiasm for science, and I have tried to hold onto that. Conducting rigorous research while having fun is an essential skill that David instilled in me. Finally, my postdoctoral advisor, Chris Wright, was very open and generous in sharing ideas, reagents, and animal models, and I have tried to emulate that generosity. All my mentors treated me like a colleague rather than a trainee, and I speak with all of them regularly and consider them to be lifetime mentors and friends.
When I started my own lab, I needed to transition from being a good mentee to being a good mentor. I try to encourage all my students and postdocs to remain in contact with me for the long term, as I have done with my own mentors, and not simply for letters of recommendation. The bond between a mentor and a mentee is really important and is something you can fall back on throughout life. As Vice Chair for Faculty Development, I work with junior faculty and try to serve as an example of someone with a healthy work-life balance. It’s my responsibility to help them navigate the path to promotion and tenure and ensure they receive consistent mentoring from their own committees.What have been some of the most rewarding aspects of your career?
Watching my students and postdocs develop and flourish as scientists has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. I get excited watching them move on to new opportunities and succeed in their careers. Another rewarding aspect for me has been following the natural evolution of science. I started out as a developmental biologist focusing on basic scientific research, and now I am involved in drug development and bioengineering. If you asked me at the start of my career whether I would end up here, I would have emphatically said, “No!” However, I followed the science in the direction it was naturally going, despite needing to leave my comfort zone, and have established the necessary collaborations to be successful. That has been rewarding and fun.What do you do outside of the lab?
A lot! I am an Irish step dancer. I attend a two-hour class each week and participate in shows throughout the year. I have competed in Irish step dancing at the local, regional, and national levels. I also love to sing. I have competed in Celtic singing and sing at church and in shows. I am also involved in activities with my son. I volunteer with his Boy Scout troop as a merit badge counselor and attend monthly camping trips with his troop. Prior to this year, I served as my son’s classroom parent for seven years.
What is the career achievement of which you are most proud?
I am very proud of being promoted to full professor. Earlier in my career, I was advised against taking a position at Vanderbilt, because the job would require a level of intensity that was not conducive to having a family life and hobbies. At the time, I decided that I would try doing it my way with hobbies and balance, and if it didn’t work, I would pursue something else. Being able to make it to the top of the profession at a place as rigorous as Vanderbilt has been a huge accomplishment.What is the life achievement of which you are most proud?
Being able to balance a scientific career and performance has been amazing. I have had the opportunity to dance with the Chieftains, a renowned traditional Irish band; sing on stage at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center; and dance on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. My Irish dancing team came in first in the southern regional competition and third in the North American championship.
I was unsure whether I could have children due to health problems. I am blessed to have my son, and maintaining a work-life balance has allowed me to be significantly involved in his life. I am very proud of my role as a mother.
I have Crohn’s disease, and accomplishing major personal, scientific, and performing achievements while facing periods of being very ill with low energy levels is an incredible feat. I am proud to have done so.What are some of the challenges to being a scientist?
In many other professions, you can be “finished” with your work at a defined time, whether it be the end of a shift, the end of a project, or the end of a semester. As a scientist, there is always more you can do — one more experiment, one more paper, one more grant. Therefore, one of the greatest challenges is establishing barriers and boundaries to give yourself time for other things, like your family, your health, your hobbies, or thinking about science. It’s so easy to “go, go, go”! Having Crohn’s disease, it is essential for me to take the time to relax and minimize stress. Not doing so can result in me being very ill and ultimately not helpful to my lab or family. However, balance can benefit everyone. As a scientist, you need to know how to wrap up a story for publication, finish a draft of a grant early enough that you can get feedback prior to submission, or set other personal deadlines. Not doing so hurts productivity and publication records and leads to burnout and not getting the payoff of a grant or a promotion.Has your career ever taken you to exotic/exciting locations?
I come from a lower-middle-class background, and my family did not have the resources to go on vacations. I also did not have the means to travel during graduate school or my postdoc. I actually got a passport for the first time as a faculty member. Since then, I have been amazed and appreciative of the opportunities to travel to conferences around the world. My work has taken me to Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, England, and Mexico. Growing up, the Middle Ages were a passion of mine, so the opportunity to travel to castles and cathedrals in Europe has been amazing! Being a scientist has afforded me the ability to travel to places I would not have seen otherwise. I have friends all over the world now, and for that, I am grateful.