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Vanderbilt researcher trains next generation of scientists

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - From a lab on the seventh floor of Vanderbilt’s Medical Research Building IV, Dr. Maureen Gannon works on potentially life-saving research. She is a basic scientist in the field of endocrinology, focusing on insulin cells and their role in the development of diabetes.

“We’re just trying to really make fundamental discoveries that hopefully lead to the identification of a new target for a new drug,” said Gannon.

Gannon came to Vanderbilt in 1996 to begin her postdoctoral fellowship in the field of embryology. Her initial focus was in birth defects, especially cell development in embryos. As she began studying cells in the pancreas she found her research path was not as clear.

“I got into diabetes through the back door,” said Gannon. “I didn’t come here saying ‘I want to study diabetes,’ I came here wanting to study embryonic development and cell fate decisions.”

Gannon explained there was a crossover between the genes that are important in developmental choices in the pancreas and their role in insulin production and secretion.

“I completely turned my whole research path to figure out how we could use that to help people who don’t have enough insulin cells,” said Gannon. “I was not an endocrinologist, I was not a physiologist, I was an embryologist, but when my genes were taking me that way, I had to go learn it.”

Gannon’s work has been published more than 120 times in scientific journals including Diabetes and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). Her most recent published works are hung on a bulletin board outside her lab. More than 30 scientific papers are pinned around the board’s perimeter and feature countless scientists who have worked under Gannon during the last several years.

“We keep a spectrum of learners in the lab,” said Gannon, who trains people as young as high school students, to undergraduate and masters students, PhD and MD students, and postdoctoral fellows. “We all learn from each other, it’s really a team.”

Gannon helps students design experiments, interpret data, determine new questions and publish their work. She also works with them on developing scientific writing as well as how to present their data at a conference.

“Being able to help the next generation of scientists be successful and to help them develop the skills and tools they need to develop a national reputation, it just brings me so much joy – it fills my cup,” said Gannon.

Gannon’s current work

Gannon’s research has been funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Veterans Administration, the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She is currently working under three grants, one of which has been in progress for 10 years.

“We’re studying how a person’s exposure to their mother’s over-nutrition – or fatty foods -- in-utero increases their chances of diabetes later in life,” said Gannon who is part of a national consortium studying the same issue.

Diabetes occurs when not enough insulin is being produced by the body. The cells that make insulin, called beta cells, are in the pancreas.

“There’s no other cell in your body that can make up for [insulin cells], so that’s what we’re trying to do – we’re trying to figure out ways to replace them,” said Gannon.

In Gannon’s lab, she and her team have discovered certain proteins in beta cells that can be activated to increase the number of beta cells in mice and have also shown that this works in beta cells obtained from human organ donors. This could be a potential target for a new drug therapy.

“The fact that something we discovered in the lab could potentially be translated to humans is really exciting,” said Gannon. “We’re generating new knowledge and it’s going to be in a textbook some day.”

A scientist from the start

Gannon said she knew at the age of 10 she would become a scientist.

“Originally, I wanted to be a paleontologist, so if you look in my office there’s lots of fossils and I used to dig for fossils in my parents’ back yard,” said Gannon, who grew up in Queens, NY.

At the age of 12, Gannon’s father asked her a thought-provoking question about how her future career as a paleontologist might help people. When she was unable to come up with an answer, she began to explore genetic research as it relates to disease.

“I was doing middle school book reports about genes,” said Gannon.

Her childhood was less than idyllic. Gannon recalls living on food stamps and receiving food, clothing and Christmas presents from local charities.

“When I was 15 my mother and my two sisters and I left my father because he was abusive,” said Gannon. “Family and friends helped us rebuild our lives.”

Gannon attended high school and college on full needs-based scholarships and thanks her support system of family and friends who supported her emotionally and financially, and ultimately helped her achieve her dream of becoming a scientist and researcher.

“I do not want anyone to get the impression that I had a privileged background,” said Gannon. “It is important to me that people from underprivileged groups feel like they can be scientists, too!”

Gannon wears many hats

Gannon splits her time between the independent lab she has run since 2001 and her new leadership role as Associate Dean in the Office of Faculty Affairs. Gannon was named Associate Dean in August 2019. She is responsible for school-wide programs in the School of Medicine associated with faculty training, mentoring and career development.

“Dr. Gannon has been incredibly effective as a mentor and leader driving career development initiatives in the Department of Medicine,” said Jeff Balser, President and Chief Executive Officer for VUMC, in a news release at the time of her appointment.

Gannon recently received an institutional award for her faculty mentoring and career development programs. She has also organized diabetes research conferences at a national and international level.

Gannon’s official titles include Associate Dean, principle investigator, Professor of Medicine in the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism, Professor of Moleculor Physiology and BioPhysics and Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology.

Periodically, Gannon opens her lab to diabetes sufferers and their families, giving tours to help people understand their work on the disease.

“I do like to meet patients and interact with patients,” said Gannon. “I think interacting with patients gives me more of a sense of who will be helped someday by what we’re doing.”

Gannon said her mother had Type II diabetes and was diagnosed after she had already begun researching the disease.

“Once she was diagnosed, I really even felt more of an urgency that what we were doing was really important and we needed to really make sure we were helping people the best that we could,” said Gannon.

Outside the 60 hours a week she spends at VUMC, Gannon also spends time as a Celtic singer and Irish step dancer, performing with the Nashville Irish Step Dancers for the last 23 years.

Gannon is also a wife to a fellow researcher and mother to a junior in high school. She serves as a Merit Badge counselor for her son’s Boy Scout troop.

“I love [my life] and I can’t think of anything else I would rather do,” said Gannon.


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