Susan Fitzpatrick, James S. McDonnell Foundation

TITLE: President and Chief Operating Officer

FUNDING AREAS: Brain cancer, complex systems, and human cognition

CONTACT: susan@jsmf.org, 314-721-1532

IP TAKE: This trained brain scientist is looking for research proposals with that certain je ne sais quoi—a fresh perspective and a natural collaboration among the investigators.

PROFILE: Susan Fitzpatrick has filled many roles in her career: brain scientist, charity fundraiser, and media critic, just to name a few. As a young PhD, she used a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study brain metabolism at Yale. After switching to the world of nonprofits, she spent days raising money and planning public relations strategies. And when news outlets all but ignored a series of million-dollar research grants but swooped like vultures on a story about a similar prize offered to finders of gray M&Ms, Fitzpatrick called attention to the mainstream media's descent to self-parody.

"Why does everyone know about the M&Ms, but when it comes to some of the most important problems facing mankind, no one's interested," she mused

Now president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, Fitzpatrick sees her jack-of-all-trades career as an important outgrowth of her science training. She scoffs at the faculty lounge argument that science students should not aspire to careers in non-profit administration, public policy, or science writing. In fact, scientists can find rewarding careers—and contribute significantly to their employers' mission—by taking jobs in nontraditional roles, she believes. But it should be their choice. In a 2014 response to a blog post written by a young woman who "leaned out" of a STEM career, Fitzpatrick wrote:

"I feel it is immoral to lure young girls into falling in love with certain fields within science and math so we can chew them up and spit them out. I also believe that being credentialed in science does not mean you must then spend your life in the lab – some individuals will find that their interests drift into other professional directions – but it should not be that we actively drive selected people away — there are too many important problems to solve."

 

Fitzpatrick earned her PhD in biochemistry and neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College. Her postdoc at Yale University was her last position that required significant time in a laboratory, but she remains well-versed and deeply involved in her field. After all, her job involves reviewing applications and planning investments in research in the foundation's three main fields: the study of complex systems, understanding human cognition, and brain cancer.

Fitzpatrick believes foundations such as hers play a critical role in scientific research. While the big funders like the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation are important, foundations offer diversity in the types of research funded and the approach taken to funding decisions.

In particular, she sees the need to break brain research out of an intellectual rut. While many people decry the lack of funding for scientific inquiry in this area, too few are thinking about ways to break new ground with existing resources, she argues.

"Fifty years of pursuing targeted research on a limited number of hypotheses and laboratory disease models that fail to fully represent the full complexity of human disease have mostly led to failed attempts to translate the knowledge acquired into clinical therapies," she wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal. "Through a complex chain of circumstances, what happens is that the focus of research shifts to the models and away from reality."

So tapping into an outside-the-box approach to research is one key to attracting support from the James S. McDonnell Foundation. Another key is finding a cast of scientists whose skills complement each other in an organic sort of way, leading to a proposal that, in Fitzpatrick’s words, “would make clear why already too-busy people were willing to take on yet another commitment of time, energy, and resources."

The list of researchers who pass Fitzpatrick's test is relatively small, but the substantial support makes her foundation's awards a worthy goal for those who fit the bill.