Meet Dr. Martha Susiarjo

Written by Laura Schultz in celebration of AAPI Month

Dr. Martha Susiarjo is an Assistant Professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. She agreed to discuss her career and her thoughts on the challenges of the past year as part of our series on reproductive scientists of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

The goal of our research program is to elucidate how genes and environment interact during development to modulate health and disease. Our research focuses on pregnancy as a unique window of development as perturbations can adversely impact the health of (at least) three generations: the mother, child, and developing fetal germ cells that represent future grandchild. Using mouse models, we are interested in understanding the roles of environmental factors (e.g., exposure to endocrine disruptors or differences in nutritional status) in modulating pregnancy health. An ongoing NIH R01 grant-funded lab project focuses on how exposure to the common flame retardant tetrabromobisphenol A or TBBPA influences maternal and fetal immune tolerance partly by perturbing epigenetic regulation of a newly identified imprinted gene involved in tryptophan catabolism. Another project is to investigate the role of vitamin B6 status on maternal glucose homeostasis through modulation of serotonin synthesis in pancreatic islets.


What is your current position and what does it entail?

I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. I am a primary investigator and lead a small NIH-funded research team that consists of a research technician, two graduate students, and two undergraduate students. My first Ph.D. student just graduated in March 2021, and she is now a postdoctoral fellow at the NIH.

Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?

I am the first college-educated generation in my family. I was born in the southern part of Sumatra island, Indonesia, and moved to the US for undergraduate education. My husband and I are proud parents to three children ages 2-8.

I have always loved biology as a young person and was first attracted to science in middle school when we learned about mitosis and had to examine cells in onion root. I came to the US as a business major but soon learned that it was the science courses that made me excited. As a senior undergraduate, I conducted my first independent research in a microbiology lab that made me seriously consider enrolling in graduate school. I worked for one year as a research technician for Dr. Aravinda Chakravarty before applying and being admitted into the Genetics graduate program at Case Western Reserve University.

I trained with Dr. Patricia Hunt (at Case Western Reserve University then moved to Washington State University) and obtained my Ph.D. in Genetics. My Ph.D. thesis project was conceived by a lab serendipity when our mouse colony was accidentally exposed to bisphenol A (BPA) due to a breach in husbandry protocol that turned the safe vivarium’s environment into acutely toxic habitats. My graduate experiences made me fall in love with environmental health sciences. I continued as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Marisa Bartolomei (University of Pennsylvania). Not only that this was during the time when I learned many of the critical skills and techniques currently used in my own laboratory but also under Marisa’s mentorship, I have grown and matured greatly as a scientist and educator.

What impact has the pandemic had on your daily activities and your research?

The pandemic has significantly affected my daily and research activities. At the beginning of the pandemic, in addition to my responsibilities in directing a research lab and mentoring trainees, I had to homeschool my first grader and preschooler and provide full-time care for my toddler as schools and daycare in my district had to close. I have been working both remotely and in person, although the proportion of in-person work has increased since my children’s schools went back to full-time in-person in mid-April 2021. I hope, as more people in the NY state become more vaccinated including myself, to resume back to more “normal” in the next few weeks. 

I have also observed the adverse effects of the pandemic on mental health among trainees, and have contributed more efforts and time in checking in and in connecting personally/virtually.

Research-wise, just like many other labs and institutions, our lab was shut down for a couple of months last year, and when we reopened, we were in limited capacities for months due to restrictions on the max number of people allowed to be in the lab at one time. Additionally, many lab supplies and reagents were back-ordered. So overall research has slowed down due to the pandemic, although I am happy to report that we feel that we are starting to go back to almost normal productivity level. The other thing about how the pandemic has affected my research is the fact that we don’t have in-person conferences, which hamper networking and opportunities to present our research in the wider scientific communities.

Have you gained any valuable lessons from life during the pandemic?

Yes, that I took for granted the ability to visit loved ones anytime I wanted to (especially true for our international families).

What are you most excited to do over the next year?

I am most excited to be able to travel and visit families and friends

What words of inspiration would you like to share with the future generation of scientists?

More like words of advice: My career has greatly benefited from the constant support, love, and encouragement from my mentors. I think that we need mentoring at any stage in our career especially as a young scientist. So, my advice to the future generation of scientists is to identify and connect to those mentors whom you trust and who believe in you.

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