Suzanne Ponik is a senior scientist in the Department of Cell and Regenerative Biology.
Tell me about your current position.
I’m a senior scientist and PI of our lab. We do breast cancer research focusing on mammographic density, a risk factor for breast cancer.
How did you come into the position?
I started in 2005 as a postdoc. My background was in mechanotransduction and signaling in bone biology. I then transitioned to breast cancer, where research on density is linked to my mechanical signaling background: how cells interact with their environment, and how that environment helps regulate their behavior. I was with Patti Keely as a postdoc for 5 years, and then I transitioned into the scientist role in 2010. [Note: Patti Keely, Professor and Chair of the Department of Cell and Regenerative Biology, passed away in 2017.]
Now you’ve essentially taken over the lab…
Yes. As Patti expanded her roles on campus, my role in the lab became more senior. It was a really good partnership. I was already managing our grants, helping the graduate students with their projects, and had a small project of my own. It slowly evolved to where I was doing more grant oversight and project management rather than actual bench science. When she passed away, I was able to finish out her grants as a co-Investigator and I am continuing to work toward my own independence. We are still funded through those grants, and I am writing more grants of my own.
What are your favorite parts of the job?
I really like working with the students, seeing them learn and able to think through a project on their own. It’s really satisfying to me when they finally “get it” and start to develop things. Since the time I’ve been here, science has become a lot more collaborative. Being able to interact with other labs, both here on campus and beyond campus—we have collaborations with Vanderbilt and Albert Einstein and meet monthly—is a lot of fun.
Do you get to teach as well?
As Scientist, you have a single role in research. So, I don’t teach in a formal classroom setting but I am on a few thesis committees, and I co-advise two students in my own lab.
What do you find challenging about your work?
The funding levels are so difficult. It’s very daunting to go in for a grant when only eight percent are getting funded. On a day-to-day basis in the lab, it’s keeping graduate students motivated. They have their ups and downs as they are working—that’s typical science—but getting them through those moments can be a bit of a challenge.
Tell me about your involvement around campus.
I’m one of the founding members of the UW Scientist network. It’s been eye-opening to see how different the structure is for Scientists within each school. In some schools and departments, it’s easy to get temporary PI status to write grants; in other schools you can only be listed as key personnel, even if you have written the grant yourself. I’m also on the academic staff appeals committee.
What do you do in your free time?
When I’m not chasing my kids—I have three boys [ages 14, 12, and 5]—I do a lot of running. I’m going to train for my sixth marathon this fall.
– Interview conducted, condensed, and edited by Laurie Silverberg, PhD