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February 19, 2014

Lynne Maquat named 2014 Athena Award winner

Lynn Maquat in lab
“Throughout life, it is important for us to check our motivations for our actions; if we are compassionate, then we are usually making the right decision,” says Lynne Maquat, who was recently honored by the Women’s Council of the Rochester Business Alliance for her accomplishments.

Lynne Maquat, the J. Lowell Orbison Distinguished Service Alumni Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, received the 2014 Athena Award, presented by the Women’s Council of the Rochester Business Alliance. The annual award recognizes women who excel in their professions, give back to their communities, and mentor other women for leadership roles.

Maquat is an internationally recognized expert in the field of RNA biology in which she works to discover new cellular pathways and clues to the molecular basis of human disease. She is the founding director of the University’s Center for RNA Biology: From Genome to Therapeutics. In 2011 she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Maquat spends a great deal of time on peer review—reviewing research papers submitted to scientific journals and grant submissions to funding agencies in the U.S. and abroad—as a way to give back to the scientific community.

In 2013, Maquat was awarded the University’s Presidential Diversity Award for her work with the Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) program, which she founded in 2003.

Q: Can you talk a bit about the value of mentoring, especially for young women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields?

One value of mentoring is the presence of individuals, either male or female, who have already succeeded in a STEM field and can illustrate pragmatically what it takes to succeed. There are many paths to success, and each woman has to find her own way.  However, having mentors who are sensitive to the challenges that lie ahead and are able to point out the pros and cons of situations when they arise is invaluable. As an example, women and men who have one or both parents in a STEM field have a much better idea of how to achieve a STEM career.

Unfortunately, learning about science, technology, engineering, and math in our current K–12 education system does not provide a realistic view of what it is like to have a STEM career. Only when I started working in a research lab did I understand what research science was about, and it can be very intimidating without the right mentors.  When I was growing up, I didn’t know any females who were scientists. When I was a graduate student working toward a PhD in biochemistry, there were no female faculty members in the department and, worse, several faculty members did not believe women should be in graduate school or be given the opportunity to be independent scientists.  While there is still room for improvement, women have made great headway and younger generations are very likely to know women in STEM fields.   

Q: Did you have a mentor who helped you along early in your career? What is the most important piece of advice you received?

I have had a handful of mentors, both older male and female scientists, who understood the challenges that lay ahead of me and helped me shape a number of philosophies that I’ve compiled along my journey to where I am today. My approach to life derives from these philosophies, and they have guided me as I’ve made my way up the academic ladder. I learned by experience that it is okay for me to work outside of my comfort zone as long as I am truly prepared and believe in what I am doing. I learned to surround myself with capable and supportive people who are ethical and kind. I also learned to honor my past: we all make decisions throughout our lives that determine our future trajectory, whether we acknowledge this or not. This is an empowering realization and also one that allows us to live with fewer regrets. Throughout life, it is important for us to check our motivations for our actions; if we are compassionate, then we are usually making the right decision.

Q: What do you feel students from GWIS take away from their experience with the group?

I started Graduate Women in Science so that graduate students would have the chance to meet and listen to the life stories of scientists who have used their PhD degrees to many different successful ends. These stories also illustrate that while we should all set goals and point ourselves in certain directions, our personal and professional lives have ways of taking unexpected twists and turns. Throughout, one needs to be as prepared as possible—thoughtful and resilient. I think students who attend GWIS meetings take away a “can-do” attitude, and they also have the opportunity to network with one another and the diverse speakers we feature at our monthly seminars. GWIS also offers travel grants based on scientific merit and GWIS participation, allowing students to attend international meetings to present their research. You can go to the GWIS website ( to see how these travel grants have opened doors and promoted careers.

Q: What does winning the Athena Award mean to you?

Winning the Athena Award is very different from winning science-based or university-derived awards. I am happy to represent the basic science community, since most often we work behind the scenes. While it is not important that citizens understand the details of what I do (unless they would like to), it is important that they know there are basic scientists making good use of taxpayers’ dollars via funding from the National Institutes of Health. We offer the first-line of defense to understanding the molecular basis of human diseases, without which disease therapies are often “shooting in the dark.”  While many scientists, like myself, study human diseases, others study baker’s yeast for insight into the growth of cancer cells, bacteria for the development of new antibiotics, or round worms and the naked mole rat for information on the process of aging. Of course, the work we do training the next generation of scientists is also critical to the future of health care in this country and beyond.

Being named one of 13 Athena Award finalists also helped me forge a number of new paths, as I was able to meet the other finalists—all very successful and outgoing woman in the Rochester business community—and members of the Greater Rochester Women’s Council and the Rochester Business Alliance at large.

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