American Association for Clinical Chemistry
Better health through laboratory medicine
May 2009 Mentor of the Month Interview: Marilyn Huestis
Biography
  1. What is your job title and affiliation?
  2. Briefly tell us about your educational and career background
  3. With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
  4. Just for fun, tell us a few interesting facts about yourself.
Career
  1. What area(s) do you specialize in?
  2. What initiated your interest in this (these) area(s) and how did you eventually choose this (these) area(s) for your career?
  3. What are your clinical and research interests?
  4. What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
  5. Are there specific aspects of practicing laboratory medicine that you find unappealing?
  6. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
  7. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
  8. What excites you about practicing laboratory medicine everyday?
  9. What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
  10. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
  11. What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
  12. Describe how you have been able to give back or contribute to the organizations and the profession in general through your involvement in AACC.
  13. How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
  14. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
Biography
  1. What is your job title and affiliation?
    Chief of Chemistry and Drug Metabolism, Intramural Research Program, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, Tenured NIH Senior Investigator, and Adjunct Professor, University of Maryland Baltimore, School of Medicine.
  2. Briefly tell us about your educational and career background.
    I became interested in clinical chemistry during a summer job program in a hospital laboratory during my undergraduate studies at Mount Holyoke College, where I majored in biochemistry and physiology. My liberal arts education at Mount Holyoke focused on problem identification and resolution, training that has certainly helped me throughout my career. Being a military wife and mother, we moved about every two years, definitely affected my career, but also provided great opportunities to meet people throughout the country and internationally, and to expose myself to analytical, postmortem & emergency toxicology, therapeutic drug monitoring, human performance toxicology and other clinical chemistry fields. I obtained my master’s degree in Clinical Chemistry from the University of New Mexico after working for 10 years and definitely enjoyed animal research and method development and validation. I worked in hospital, reference, toxicology and government laboratories until my doctoral degree in Toxicology from the University of Maryland Baltimore, with my research conducted at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Although post-doctoral fellows are the norm, I was the first predoctoral student at NIDA and conducted controlled licit pharmacotherapies and illicit drug administration studies. I loved human research, designing hypothesis-driven protocols, working with participants, developing new analytical methods, analyzing the data and publishing interesting findings. I left the research to open my own toxicology consultation practice, and although it was a financial and professional success, I missed the research. I enjoy the academic environment, the challenges of developing a doctoral research program through the University of Maryland, and contributing to evidence-based drug policy. Five students have received their doctoral degrees with research conducted in our laboratories and four more are in the process. Mentoring is one of the most important aspects of my career, and extends to many efforts in national and international professional societies. There are few academic-based forensic toxicologists, especially with as unconventional a career as I have had, demonstrating that there is no one right path to a successful career.
  3. With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
    Professional societies play an important role in my professional career and I have held leadership positions in many organizations including President of the Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SOFT), Chair of the Toxicology Section and Board of Directors of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), President of the International Association of Forensic Toxicologists (TIAFT), Director of Education of the International Association of Therapeutic Drug Monitoring and Clinical Toxicology (IATDMCT), the International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS), Society of Hair Testing, many others, and of course AACC, my first professional organization. Within these organizations, I have focused on educational opportunities, chairing workshops and annual national and international meetings, and educational and fellowship initiatives for scientists from developing countries.
  4. Just for fun, tell us a few interesting facts about yourself:
    • Family
      My father was in the military and I became a military wife at 21 leading to 31 moves across the US and internationally during my school and professional years. This proved challenging for obtaining my education, most relocations were for less than 3 years, and for professional advancement. However, I also had the opportunity to work in diverse fields of toxicology and clinical chemistry, to meet wonderful colleagues and mentors, to be repeatedly challenged with frequent new assignments, and to learn that research was the area that most excited and fulfilled me. Home is wherever my family is, rather than a particular place. I couldn’t have achieved so much without the loving support of my parents, husband, siblings and children.
    • Favorite activities/hobbies
      I love to travel and luckily I am invited to lecture all over the world, and to work with young and developing country scientists. I am a mean doubles tennis player and love boating on the Chesapeake Bay and downhill skiing.
    • Favorite places you have traveled
      My favorite place is the Pantanal in Brazil because it was so exotic and wild, and I saw more new species of animals in two weeks than I ever expected to see in my lifetime. I also love Australia, Greece, Argentina and China; actually, I just love to learn about the culture, history, food and beauty of different countries.
    • Favorite book/movie
      This is a tough question. I love to read but unfortunately mostly read scientific articles. I loved all of Ayn Rand’s novels including The Fountainhead, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I really enjoy movies as a great escape from work for a few hours, everything from Chariots of Fire to Robert Ludlum’s adventure films.
    • Most fun/adventurous thing you’ve ever done
      I truly enjoy adventure when traveling, canoeing with crocodiles in Australia, piranha fishing in Brazil with black leopards that swim, taking a dragon boat up the river in the Golden Triangle of Thailand, jet-boating on shallow rivers in New Zealand or staying with non-English speaking families in Russia- all have been fun and truly enriched my life.
Career
  1. What area(s) do you specialize in?
    I specialize in controlled administration of licit pharmacotherapies and illicit drugs to drug users to characterize the pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics of drugs. We develop sensitive and specific GCMS and LCMSMS biomarker assays to determine a drug’s pharmacokinetics in order to model simultaneously obtained physiological, cognitive, and behavioral effects with drug concentrations in a wide variety of biological matrices including blood, urine, oral fluid, sweat, hair, meconium, placenta, umbilical cord and amniotic fluid. We are interested in determining the mechanisms of drug action and the onset, peak and duration of drug effects.
  2. What initiated your interest in this (these) area(s) and how did you eventually choose this (these) area(s) for your career?
    I worked in a clinical laboratory during the summers while I was in college and my first post college job was performing toxicology analyses with one of the first clinical gas chromatographs. These experiences were highly interesting and whetted my appetite for clinical chemistry and toxicology. I also enjoyed my master’s degree research on animal clinical chemistry and toxicology, but by far the challenge (many hurdles) of clinical research determined my career focus. Trying to unravel one of the most difficult problems that our country faces, drug abuse, is highly compelling.
  3. What are your clinical and research interests?
    Our goals are to understand a drug’s actions to improve prevention and treatment efforts. We also are creating a scientific database for the interpretation of drug tests. Although my research includes studies of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA, codeine, methadone and buprenorphine administration, my research on cannabinoid agonists and antagonists is best known and spans more than 20 years. We also devote about one-third of our research efforts on the problem of in utero drug exposure and one-third on the neurobiology of MDMA or ecstasy.
  4. What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
    My most important contribution is mentoring University of Maryland Baltimore toxicology graduate students who are becoming great contributors in their own endeavors. Four completed their dissertations and three more are in the process. I believe my research on cannabinoids has advanced our understanding of this important endogenous neurotransmitter system.
  5. Are there specific aspects of practicing laboratory medicine that you find unappealing?
    Yes, I enjoy designing clinical studies with appropriate controls to answer hypotheses-driven research. Mining the data is also creative and rewarding and gives you many times more questions than answers. I also enjoy lecturing and writing about our research, as it is fulfilling to share your new ideas and data that excite you and hopefully your audience as well.
  6. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
    The most rewarding moments have been recognition of my work with lifetime career awards from my peers from the American Academy of Forensic Toxicology Rolla N. Harger Award in 2005, the National Institute of Health Women in Science Award, the International Association of Therapeutic Drug Monitoring and Clinical Toxicology’s Irving Sunshine Award in 2007, and the American Associations of Clinical Chemistry Award for Outstanding Contributions in a Selected Area of Research 2008. The most challenging moments have been working out difficult analytical problems, motivating unmotivated individuals, and performing clinical research in today’s world of ethical, safety and privacy issues that make the work even harder to perform.
  7. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
    My major flaw is being a workaholic. I do not have sage advice on this topic. The only saving grace is that I tend to work and play hard. I wish that I had a better work/life balance. I believe that always having to start over in each new job and having to learn so many new skills quickly contributes to this. However, I have been Chief of Chemistry and Drug Metabolism at NIDA since 1998, and I still have a poor balance. In my current position, the quality and number of your publications is the meter of your performance, and it is a much slower process in clinical than preclinical research.
  8. What excites you about practicing laboratory medicine everyday?
    I enjoy designing clinical protocols to answer important knowledge gaps, and especially analyzing the data to unearth new findings. Learning new techniques and applying our specific areas of expertise to answer questions about the mechanisms of drug abuse and addiction is rewarding.
  9. What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
    I predict that as our analytical techniques become more sensitive, the emphasis will be less on obtaining the lowest quantitative numbers and more on accurate interpretation of the meaning of the data. Also, we may find that minor biomarkers of disease are the most important for predicting outcomes. More sensitive and specific instrumentation will permit us to look for these less abundant biomarkers. Pharmacogenetics will become much more important in the years ahead, as we begin to understand the contribution of genetics, the environment and the complex interaction of these two in the disease process.
  10. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
    Young scientists have the challenge to prove that laboratory medicine is relevant, informative and cost-effective. Relating laboratory results to accurate and timely diagnosis, recovery, prognosis and preventive medicine is key to others valuing your work.
  11. What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
    Find an aspect of your work that you are passionate about and that fulfills you. As a professional scientist, you are going to spend a large percentage of your life working; you will be much more successful if you are happy. I would like to suggest research as a highly fulfilling aspect of our work. Not just full time research, but finding opportunities for research in many different positions. It is marvelous to discover something new.
  12. Describe how you have been able to give back or contribute to the organizations and the profession in general through your involvement in AACC.
    AACC is a wonderful organization that comprises the leaders in laboratory medicine. There are numerous opportunities to learn from your peers about exciting new techniques, disease mechanisms, and management skills. The individual divisions offer a network of peers who share your interests. I have made many friends and contacts in the Therapeutic Drug Monitoring and Toxicology Division that have helped me throughout my career. Planning a regional or national meeting is a great experience that expands your network and teaches you new skills. I have been very active in professional organizations, primarily toxicology associations, and have found this time to be professionally and personally satisfying.
  13. How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
    All organizations are looking for hard-working people who are willing to take on positions on committees and who will complete the tasks on time. There are a multitude of opportunities that will grow if you are a reliable contributor. Talk to people and tell them you are interested, write to new committee chairs and ask how you can help. Just remember that if you don’t get things done on time, it will remembered forever.
  14. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
    Thank you for selecting me for SYCL mentor of the month. SYCL members today will be the leaders in the field tomorrow. I am honored.