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Women Scientist Profiles

Marilyn Huestis, Ph.D.

Marilyn Huestis, Ph.D.

Chief of the Chemistry and Drug Metabolism Section of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) since 1998, Dr. Marilyn Huestis is a toxicologist studying the effects of illicit drugs on the body, brain, and in utero. Her doctoral research focused on cannabis (marijuana), and she went on to study a wide range of illicit drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, and heroin. Her recent work includes an initiative to develop new diagnostic tests for designer drugs, which current drug tests cannot detect. She is motivated to see how her research improves people’s lives by reducing deaths from drugged driving or reducing the effects on children when mothers use drugs during pregnancy. She thoroughly enjoys mentoring students in toxicology, having overseen the doctoral or post-doctoral research of more than a dozen investigators.

Dr. Huestis began working in a toxicology lab in 1969 as an undergraduate. She married, earned an M.S. in clinical chemistry, held a variety of jobs, and raised a family, returning to school to earn her doctorate in toxicology in 1992 from the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Medicine. In the late 1990s she started one of the few human clinical research labs in the world to test illicit drugs in humans.

Dr. Huestis is a past-president of the Society of Forensic Toxicologists, past chair of the Toxicology Section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and the first woman president of the International Association of Forensic Toxicologists.

How has mentorship shaped your career?

Mentoring is one of the most important aspects of my job. An important role of NIDA’s Intramural Research Program is to train young investigators in basic and clinical research related to drug abuse, and assist with their career development. Toxicology needs mentors—especially more female mentors for female students. It’s an important responsibility to reach out and support other women in the field.

Mentoring doctoral students is very important to me. I help them learn how to conduct research, how to present themselves, and how to build their careers. They also have to learn scientific writing skills—how not to over-interpret the data while maintaining attention to detail and how to maintain a confident voice while remaining open to alternate hypotheses. To watch students’ development from the beginning of their studies to the earning of their Ph.D.—that’s absolutely the best part of my job.

It would have helped to have more mentorship in research earlier in my own scientific training. I didn’t start conducting research until I was working on my doctorate, which I pursued only after raising a family. When I finally got into research, I fell in love with it, and wound up publishing 390 publications, only having started after age 40. But I think if I had had different mentors I might have gravitated toward research earlier in my education, and accomplished even more.

As an undergraduate at an all-women’s college, I had great mentors teaching me to think and resolve complex problems, instilling the message that I, a woman, could accomplish a lot in the world. However, I didn’t have a lot of mentors in my specific discipline, biochemistry, and I don’t remember much encouragement to pursue science, which even fewer women did then than now. It would have helped to get more reinforcement that it was possible for women to become career scientists.

I was number one in my class and my major, but my teachers were disappointed when I married in my senior year. They let me know they didn’t think I was fulfilling my potential. That left me with a feeling that I always wanted to get back to academia. At the first opportunity, 10 years later, I went through a full two-year program to earn my master’s degree. Several years later, I went for my doctorate. I think the perseverance it took to pursue my studies sprang from the confidence nurtured by my undergraduate mentors.

I believe it’s really important to introduce girls in high school, middle school, or even earlier to the possibilities of a career in science. And especially girls in developing countries, who may be struggling to obtain an equal education to boys.

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

Recently, we used the world’s most advanced driving simulator, built by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to conduct the first-ever study of the effects of an illicit drug on driving. It took several years to obtain funding from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, NHTSA, and NIDA, but I think it was the best study ever done on the effects of cannabis and alcohol on driving.

There were many hurdles in conducting the study. The campus we used had a complete ban on smoking; we managed to work around that by using a vaporizer for the cannabis. The simulator’s driving tests were designed to be sensitive to the effects of alcohol, but they had no existing drive to observe the effects of cannabis. Ultimately, we had to build six different drives to study the effects of low-dose, then high-dose cannabis alone; low-dose alcohol alone; low-dose, then high-dose cannabis with low-dose alcohol; and then tests with placebos for both drugs. And it was difficult to get our test subjects—illicit drug users—to follow through on such a demanding protocol. They had to report to the study six different times.

But we did it, and the data were amazing. It was the first time we were able to identify the blood concentrations of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, which produce the same level of driving impairment as alcohol. We found that alcohol affects peak THC concentrations, and that THC delays the peak of alcohol concentration. It was a tremendous challenge from a research perspective, but it worked out really well. And the researchers I trained and worked with have gone on to excellent careers.

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

In 2010, I received a doctor honoris causa, an honorary doctoral degree, from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Helsinki, a school that supported my work on in utero drug exposure. That was a great honor, and it meant the world to me.

Has your research ever taken you to exotic locations?

In addition to Finland, I’ve been invited to teach in many places around the world, including Australia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Thailand, and Greece. I love it. I get to work with different people and learn about their history, culture, and religions.

Do you have advice for young female scientists?

You need to choose a career that you’re going to be passionate about, no matter what career you choose. If you choose something that you love and are invested in, then it’s really not work at all. It’s pursuing your passion and making a contribution—and there are so many ways you can make a contribution in every field. It’s critical to find a field that you love, that is going to give you satisfaction and allow you to grow and reach your full potential. At the same time, maintaining work/life balance is a challenge, and you need mentors who will support that.

This page last updated: July 7, 2016

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