NIAMS Scientists – Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

May 16, 2013

A Conversation with NIAMS Scientist Dr. Maria Morasso

Photo of Dr. Said Ibrahim
Dr. Maria I. Morasso

Maria I. Morasso, Ph.D., is chief of the Laboratory of Skin Biology in the Intramural Research Program at the NIAMS. She received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Investigations. Dr. Morasso started at the NIH as a post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Thomas Sargent in the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. In May 2000, she became a tenure-track investigator and head of the Developmental Skin Biology Unit. Since May 2008, Dr. Morasso has been Chief of the Developmental Skin Biology Section and of the Laboratory of Skin Biology. She also serves as an adjunct investigator in the Center for Cancer Research in the National Cancer Institute. In her interview, Dr. Morasso discusses the influences in her career choice, the importance of mentoring and what she finds most rewarding about being a scientist.

 

Were there people or events that influenced your career choice?

My parents influenced my career in science. My dad was an airplane pilot and he was interested in science, and my mom studied medicine. They really supported me. Their support and encouragement were very important to me. I have also been lucky in having great scientific mentors during my career.

Was there a defining moment that led you to a career in science?

I have always had an interest in how things occur and a desire to understand processes and mechanisms. In Venezuela, students follow a set curriculum until the third year of high school, when they must decide between pursuing arts and humanities or science. I chose science. When I was 15, I went to the Universidad Central de Venezuela to work on a short internship, which was instrumental in helping me understand the scientific method and approach of asking why and how things work. It was a wonderful experience.

What is the focus of your research?

The focus of my research is the developmental and molecular aspects of epidermal differentiation and skin barrier formation. Differentiation occurs when the skin cells become specialized; they form into cells that are suited to the roles they will play. In my research, we look at cells which should form the skin barrier and keep foreign substances out of the body. We are interested in determining the connection between skin inflammation and the associated abnormal differentiation of skin cells and disrupted barrier function seen in inflammatory skin diseases such as psoriasis. My group also works with mouse models of ectodermal dysplasias, which is a group of genetic disorders associated with defects in the hair, nails, sweat glands and teeth.

What do you enjoy about your career?

The essence of being a scientist is that you are continuously learning. As scientists, our role is to question, so we are constantly learning new techniques and information—there is so much available. The real beauty of being a researcher is that you can ask questions and your work is trying to get answers. Not many jobs give you this opportunity. I see it as a privilege.

What have been the most rewarding or fulfilling aspects of your career?

I feel that I have a responsibility to teach those who come after me, so I find it very rewarding to mentor younger scientists. I value the opportunity to help others understand the process of science. A fulfilling aspect of being a scientist focuses on the research itself. After studying a specific problem for some time, there is a certain beauty and satisfaction when you can determine an answer, and when the knowledge obtained can be used to better understand and treat a disease.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?

You need to have a lot of dedication and perseverance to be a scientist because your work doesn’t always produce immediate results. Things move so quickly in today’s world, and we have gotten used to an immediate reward. You have to persevere when working in science, and sometimes you have to ask a question in different ways to really understand the mechanism you’re trying to discover. One of the great things about being married to a scientist is that he understands the intricacies and nuances of scientific pursuit and the dedication you need to have. He is very supportive, which is a big plus!

What activities do you enjoy outside of work?

I come from a very large family, and they now live in different countries. I get to travel around the world while visiting them, which is beautiful because I get to see them and experience many cultures. I also love being outdoors and I am an avid runner. I run half-marathons and I run five or six miles, four days a week with a group of my friends. None of these friends are scientists, so it is nice to have the opportunity to talk with them about different things and get a chance to interact with people on other career paths.

Can you offer any advice for women or people from communities of color who wish to pursue a career in science?

I am Hispanic, so I am very interested in seeing more Hispanics and other minorities in science. I was chair of the NIH Women Scientist Advisors Committee, and I think it is important to figure out a way to incorporate more women in this profession as principal investigators and professors. We need to attract, retain and promote women. In terms of advice, I try to reiterate that being a scientist requires dedication and assertiveness to do what you want to do, and also that it requires a lot of effort. There are so many opportunities and programs for minorities, and NIH is interested in increasing diversity in the workforce. It is very important for women and minorities to get mentorship to help guide them on their path to being successful.

Why is it important for people from communities of color to participate in research—both as investigators and as patients?

It is important to have minorities represented in the workforce and to have input from minority populations in research. Otherwise, research would be very restrictive. It is key to understanding why certain minority populations have a greater propensity or tendency to have certain diseases. If the research is thoroughly explained to minority communities, chances are they will be very happy to participate and help researchers in accomplishing their scientific goals.