Office Hours: Dr. Maureen Harrington, PhD
Dr. Maureen Harrington’s office encapsulates the great successes of her life and career. Memorabilia in her office illustrates her commitment to her field and her undeniable pride of her work, her students, and above all, her daughter, Colleen. Colleen’s drawings and notes to her mother share wall space with awards, souvenirs from past adventures, and celebrated publications. Despite the memories and achievements filling the office, windowsill, and three separate desks, the woman at the center of these items is rarely among them.
No, Dr. Harrington is more likely to be found discussing experiments, running across campus to the dozen-a-day meetings that keep the school thriving, or standing with a student in the hallway giving advice, answering questions, and calming the nerves of anxious MD/PhD candidates. This constant involvement, more than any award or publication, outlines Dr. Harrington’s dedication to driving field-changing research and shaping IU into a nationally respected MSTP.
For almost 30 years, Dr. Harrington has been making strides to advance her field of research and improve at the curriculum at IUSM. Dr. Harrington has moved through the ranks at IU, from her starting position as a post-doc to her current roles as PI, Associate Dean of Medical School Education, Co-Director of the MSTP, and Professor of Biochemistry. When asked what keeps her here, Dr. Harrington responded simply: “I like my job.” Research in the Harrington lab examines transcriptional control of gene expression focusing on the tumor necrosis factor signaling pathway using everything from cell lines to knockout mice. Because TNF cannot be blocked indiscriminately due to dangerous side effects, Dr. Harrington focuses on modulating certain pathways through TNF-dependent transcriptional coactivators in order to protect the homeostasis of the system.
Besides her many leadership roles at IUSM, Dr. Harrington has also been involved with the IUSM MSTP since 2002 when she and Dr. Clapp first aimed to re-establish the program. Dr. Clapp insisted that Dr. Harrington join him on this project and she has helped build the program ever since. One of her favorite aspects of the growing program is improved integration with Purdue. For the past 15 years, Dr. Harrington has helped build the program into a competitive MSTP. Through a recent Lilly endowment and constant dedication, Dr. Harrington has helped to produce more program-specific activities. Best of all, Dr. Harrington notes, “We have students who are doing what we’ve set out to train them to do. All of that stuff is really rewarding.”
Dr. Harrington was straightforward and transparent about the importance of translational science today: “People have always done it. Researchers in medical school are interested in translational processes, so they’re automatically interested in translational research.” The issue of translational science and its relevance to the field today is not a transient one. It has always been relevant and will continue to be a great way to bring science and medicine together. However, it is a draining and sometimes unrewarding process. Everyone wants to shorten the pipeline, but they need to understand the importance of the steps in between. “It’s incredibly important,” says Dr. Harrington, “I think it’s important for investigators to understand how hard this is, they must articulateto people that it takes time to transition from bench to clinic.”
The Need for Support
Dr. Harrington notes that support is fundamental to producing good research, and to secure funding, a lab must share its findings. “There’s all kinds of support that you need,” Dr. Harrington elaborates, “Support from family at home, support from the people you work with, and support to do your research.” In lab, you need a mentor who does not put too many demands, someone who lets your research flourish and guides your questions; at home, you need friends and family who back your decisions and reinvigorate your passion for research when times are hard in lab.
Financial support can also produce a unique pressure, as there is a constant need to maintain productivity to keep funding. Failing to do so can produce “a black hole” in anyone’s career. To navigate this black hole of potential loss of funding, Dr. Harrington recommends developing a broad skill set and maintaining an open mind for your role in research. Flexibility and commitment can carry researchers through delicate transition points in support networks.
Words of Wisdom
Finally, Dr. Harrington offers her insight about the value of having both the MD and PhD experience. She points out that, because physician scientists are in clinic, they can see where the needs are in a way that pure scientists may miss. “You can only understand how to develop a therapy for a disease if you go into a clinic and see it.” Seeing the patient is a reality check to make sure you consider how your work actually impacts your patient and ultimately helps to shape your research question. She offers optimistic advice, laughing as she says, “You have to be very determined, just be persistent, don’t let the train wrecks get you down. I’m the eternal optimist.”
Dr. Harrington represents a scientist committed not only to the expansion of her field, but to the many programs she helps direct and the hundreds of students that she has guided over her years at IU. “I don’t have a single regret looking back on my career,” she says, “and I feel very proud of what I’ve accomplished.” Based on her constant mentorship of dozens of students, her history of service at IU, and her ability to find solutions to problems no matter how complicated or taxing, she has every right to be proud of her work.
The views expressed in this post content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.