Marian Carlson, Simons Foundation

TITLE: Director, Life Sciences

FUNDING AREAS: Life sciences

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IP TAKE: Carlson has big plans for the Life Sciences program at Simons. STEM researchers with big ideas in neuroscience and microbiology should contact Carlson, but she's also interested in helping postdoctoral researchers and other beginning scientists kick-start their research careers.

PROFILE: Marian Carlson became director of Life Sciences at the Simons Foundation in May 2013, but she is no stranger to scientific philanthropy. She's been with the Simons Foundation since 2010, after serving as senior scientific officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), another funder of scientific research and STEM activities.

Carlson, a geneticist, received her bachelor's degree from Harvard University and her PhD in biochemistry from Stanford University. After doing postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1981, where she became professor of genetics and development in 1987 and then professor of microbiology. She also served as senior associate dean and vice dean for research. In 2008, she took a leave from Columbia to go to HHMI and then later joined Simons as deputy director of life sciences.

She still maintain a lab at Columbia, which has used genetic analysis in yeast to elucidate conserved mechanisms of signal transduction and transcriptional regulation. She identified the SNF1/AMPK protein kinase pathway, which has highly conserved roles in metabolic regulation and is implicated in type 2 diabetes and cancer. In 2009, Carlson received the Genetic Society of America Medal for her work.

Carlson's tenure at Simons has been marked by two major projects in the Life Sciences and Autism research programs, efforts that partnered Simons with leading universities and scientific researchers. In 2011, she helped with the establishment of the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT. The center's work aims to understand the neural mechanisms underlying social cognition and behavior and to translate this work into better treatment of autism. Carlson also spearheaded the creation of the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life. This effort supports research by Simons investigators and postdoctoral fellows to better understand the origins of life on earth.

As director of Life Sciences, Carlson plans to initiate similar collaborations in neuroscience, microbiology, and other areas. She also plans to promote quantitative approaches to biological research. While the foundation's largest grants have gone to large established research universities, Carlson's work on the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life signals a willingness to support the work of postdoctoral researchers and other beginning scientists. She believes it is important for scientists who are starting their careers to be able to pursue their ideas and build momentum without having to worry about funding. This type of support also encourages students to pursue academic science careers.

Carlson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (2009) and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2004), the American Academy of Microbiology (1995), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is a past president of the Genetics Society of America and received the society's Medal in 2009.