Laura Mackey Lorentzen, PhD

Please welcome Laura Mackey Lorentzen to the blog! I originally interviewed Laura at the beginning of June, before I went on vacation, planning to post her story by the end of the month. One broken nose and a drain-pipe kitten rescue later, here we are posting in July. However, do not fear, I will have a new story coming later for the month of July!

Laura Mackey Lorentzen holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology from The University of Charleston, a Master of Science in Cell and Molecular Biology from Duquesne University, and a PhD in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics from Baylor College of Medicine. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Hennings College of Science, Mathematics and Technology at Kean University in New Jersey. Throughout her career, Laura has also been very involved in academic administration and volunteer work with professional science organizations.

Tenure-track Faculty before Thirty

What did her path to a science career look like?

Laura Mackey Lorentzen does not remember a time when she was not interested in science. She always knew that her future held something to do with science, but she didn’t really know what as no one in her family had ever been involved in science. Laura attended the University of Charleston in Charleston, West Virginia, as a scholar-athlete majoring in biology on an academic and sports scholarships to play tennis.

When faculty members began to ask her what she planned to do after graduation, Laura didn’t know. Medical school was often suggested to her because of her good grades, but Laura decided that she did not want to be responsible for a person’s life and death and thus an MD was not for her. Luckily, one of her college professors opened her eyes to other possibilities beyond medical school.

“It was a biology professor of mine who said, ‘You could go and do a master’s degree’. And my answer was ‘What’s that?’ I didn’t even know what a master’s degree was,” she said.

Getting her master’s degree seemed like a good choice as she had finished college in just three years and knew that she would be able to get the second degree in only two more years. She also liked that she could continue learning about science while also receiving a tuition waiver and earning a stipend. Having been raised in the Pittsburgh area, she headed back to her hometown for the molecular biology and evolution master’s program at Duquesne University.

Laura’s master’s thesis revolved around manual DNA sequencing, where it would take weeks between cloning and running huge sequencing electrophoresis gels to sequence one gene of a few thousand base pairs. Although it sounds like extremely tedious work, Laura loved it.

“It just blew me away that we were doing original research and competing against other labs, not only in the country, but in the world, and it’s a race to see who’s going to publish this stuff first. So, I got the research bug in my master’s”, she said.

Photo of the Garey Lab at Duquesne University (Laura is far-left)

As Laura was completing her master’s degree, the field of molecular biology was transitioning to the use of automated DNA sequencing machines that allowed gene sequencing in a matter of hours. Because she was trained in this new technology, Laura immediately began a part-time lab manager position running the brand-new DNA sequencing core facility at Duquesne after her master’s. While continuing to perform research and publish, she also taught as an adjunct lecturer at three different schools.

After two years of working four part-time jobs, Laura realized that it was time to move on to more stability in her career. She applied to several doctoral degree programs and ultimately decided to attend Baylor College of Medicine for their biomedicine PhD program. Once her initial coursework was completed, Laura began working on her dissertation research in junior faculty Mariella De Biasi’s lab.

“I loved the research she was doing because it was whole animal based. It was all organ systems and transgenic mice. It was hardcore physiology,” she said.

Because De Biasi was a brand-new faculty member and Laura was to be her very first student, the chair of the department required Laura to sign an acknowledgment stating that she understood that new labs were without funding and if they did not get funding within the next few years, she would no longer have a mentor. But Laura wasn’t put off; she knew De Biasi was who she wanted to work with.

“I remember her saying to me after that meeting, ‘Okay, you got to get your doctorate and I got to get tenure’. And it was like, alright, we’re forged. We’re going at this together,” Laura said.

How did she transition from research to a teaching-focused career?

Laura describes her doctoral work as the most intense thing she had ever done; incredibly exciting and incredibly depressing. A roller coaster of highs and lows. And although she wouldn’t change a thing looking back on it now, she realized during that time that she didn’t want a career like that.

“I said to her, ‘I don’t want to be you when I grow up’. In other words, I don’t want to be living and dying on grant funding to support a whole lab. And she understood,” she said.

When her doctoral mentor asked what she wanted to do instead, Laura told her that she wanted to be a college professor where most of her job would be teaching. At that time in the late 90’s, PhDs who went on to teaching-focused faculty positions were seen, by some, as second-class citizens who only taught because they couldn’t cut it in the research world. Due to this bias, there were not a lot of opportunities for doctoral students to learn about teaching as a career.

Fortunately, Laura was comfortable enough with the Dean of the Graduate School at Baylor to disclose her plans to them. Through this connection, she was able to unofficially intern and interview with a couple of the Baylor faculty who were the core teachers for the PhD and MD programs, as there were no undergraduates at the college of medicine. This experience also allowed Laura to be a facilitator for the first-year medical students physiology course.

Once she was finished with her doctorate, Laura applied for both post-doctoral and tenure-track faculty positions. She knew that the faculty positions were a long shot but figured it couldn’t hurt to just apply. And she was right. She soon had offers for both a post-doctoral position at Columbia University in New York City and a tenure-track faculty position at Kean University in New Jersey. At that time, Kean was looking for an early career scientist to launch their new master’s in biotechnology degree program.

“And that brought me to then bypassing a postdoc. So, I packed up my clothes and my books and drove to the northeast. I was a tenure track faculty member, and I was still in my 20s!” Laura said. “I acknowledge that I was incredibly lucky that I got the position as a tenure track assistant professor right out of graduate school, I know that is unique”.

As a tenure-track professor at a teaching comprehensive university, Laura was expected to teach three to four classes every semester, without the help of a TA. But that didn’t stop her from continuing to perform research during the less busy summer months when she was not obligated to teach.

“I still publish. I occasionally still publish original lab bench-based research, but more of my publications are review articles based on library research or articles about pedagogical research studies I conduct,” she said.

How did she get involved in academic administration?

Laura was tenured at Kean University in 2005, while still in her early 30’s, and was promoted to associate professor in 2007. However, in addition to teaching and research, she also spent 10 years of her career at Kean as an administrator.

Around 2003, Laura was approached by the university president and vice president to create a science and mathematics honors college at Kean. She accepted the challenge and was given everything she needed to hire new faculty, develop the curriculum, and build and outfit a science building. The new program that she developed allowed students to graduate with their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in a wide range of scientific and computational mathematics disciplines in 5 total years. Some students then went on to be high school science teachers while others continued on to get their doctorate.

Laura with a student and staff member at the Honor's College Opening Gala in 2010

Laura never stopped teaching during this time; she was given a half teaching load and the title of executive director. “It was like being in graduate school again. I worked 24/7, 365 days a year, for 10 years, and built exactly what they wanted me to build”, she said.

During this time, Laura also sat on the University Dean’s Council as a voting member and reported directly to the university provost. After 10 years, Laura left the position and returned to being a full-time teaching faculty member. Although Laura found the administrative work incredibly rewarding, it was also extremely taxing, and her true passion lies in the classroom.

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime to create an honors science college and I enjoyed every minute of it for 10 years. What I do now is very different and equally enjoyable. Because when I finish time in the classroom with my students, I’m riding a euphoric high for hours,” Laura said. “The day that I don’t feel like this is probably the day that I have to retire.”

How did she become an editor in chief for AWIS?

It seems like Laura couldn’t possibly fit more on her plate, but throughout her time as a professor, she has participated in volunteer work for several professional organizations. These organizations include the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), a national multidisciplinary honor society called Phi Kappa Phi, the American Physiological Society, and the New Jersey Academy of Science.

Laura became a student member of AWIS during her master’s because she wanted to be part of an organization that was promoting women in science. She also knew the resources that organizations like this offer to students and faculty can be very valuable. Laura continued her membership through her doctorate and into her faculty position.

During the time that she was beginning her assistant professorship, Laura responded to a call for writers for AWIS’s quarterly magazine. “It was a 52 page, beautiful, glossy, kind of trade-looking magazine that the organization put out quarterly. They were soliciting people who may be interested in writing essays, that sort of thing”, she said.

Laura answered the call and began to write interesting pieces about the journeys of women in science based on interviews with the women. Sometimes she would write about specific science topics that were to be the theme of an upcoming issue of the magazine. She would write her essays, she would be given edits from the editorial board, it would go back and forth a few times, and eventually her article would appear in print.

Although this work was entirely volunteer and unpaid, Laura felt that it was rewarding and a good addition to her resume. And a few of her pieces generated significant buzz for the magazine. She wrote one such article about her decision to take only three sick days instead of full maternity leave after the birth of her daughter.

“That essay generated a ton of letters to the editor. Some women were writing in saying, ‘I support you; I understand where you’re coming from. Kudos to you, Laura’. Some others said the total opposite. ‘Why didn’t you take what you were entitled to?’”, she said.

After writing for the magazine for a few years, the editor in chief approached Laura about applying to take over her position when she left. Laura wasn’t sure at first. She already had a full-time job, and she would be taking on a lot of work with no pay. But she did apply and was offered the job. Laura served as editor in chief of the AWIS magazine for a couple years before stepping down.

Laura also earned a spot on the AWIS national executive board and got to attend yearly conferences with the organization. Laura says that one of the things that she enjoyed most about the experience was interacting with scientists from different disciplines all over the country.

Laura has also written for the Phi Kappa Phi FORUM magazine as their science and technology columnist and was a past president of the NJ Academy of Science. She also co-founded the first local outreach team in NJ for the American Physiological Society, who conducted professional development workshops for high school science teachers.

“They have been opportunities for me to be engaged in science literacy, engaged with other scientists, and to be creative. It is the part of my job that is creative, because I am thinking outside of my own little slice of science,” Laura said.

What is her biggest professional achievement/thing she is most proud of?

Laura gets a new headshot as a tenured faculty member

What Laura considers her top professional achievement and what she is most proud of are two very different things. She believes her biggest achievement is being published in Nature only shortly after getting her master’s degree. Although she is very proud of this accomplishment, she is most proud of the Honors Science and Math college that she co-created at Kean University.

As a faculty member who moved into academic administration, Laura was the university’s first Executive Director and worked to build the new program, obtain state-approval for the curriculum, hire new faculty, and recruit top students for this five-year, bachelor/master’s program.

“It was my baby for 10 years of my professional career. Building that curriculum, the team of personnel, and constructing a new research and teaching facility to house it; that was a dream come true. That, to me, was my crowning glory, the thing I will always be most proud of”, she said.

Who has mentored her throughout her career?

Although there were high school teachers and college professors who connected with her and helped her start the conversations in her head about her love of science and what research and graduate school meant, Laura says her prominent mentors came later in life.

Laura credits Jim Garey, the mentor for her master’s degree, for teaching her how to be a scientist. He didn’t care if his students were male or female, as long as you worked hard and were willing to learn from your mistakes and try again. “He taught me what it meant to do original research in a lab, how to design an experiment, how to perform an experiment, and the blood, sweat, and tears that go into doing bench research,” she said.

Already trained in how to be a scientist, Laura’s doctoral degree mentor, Mariella De Biasi, not only taught her new techniques specific to the field of physiology, but also how to be creative and collaborative in approaching scientific investigations. De Biasi was incredibly supportive and Laura credits both of them with influencing her own mentoring style as a professor. In 2006, Laura was named on Outstanding Mentor Honoree by the New Jersey Association for Biomedical Research.

“I’ve always carried [those mentorship qualities] with me as a professional. I don’t care who you are, where you came from, or what you have knowledge in. If you are open, willing to learn, and willing to take criticism in a constructive manner then I am willing to work with you,” Laura said.

Since starting as a professor at Kean, Laura has had a more informal mentorship with a close colleague, Kristie Reilly, a full professor of biology. She says that this relationship has been a partnership where they work together to achieve their shared goal of advancing the science and education being done at the university. Laura says she is fortunate to have had a colleague and friend with a common end goal who is willing to work together and support her.

What are her other interests?

Outside of teaching and volunteering with professional science organizations, Laura has also been very involved in her daughter’s elementary and middle school, serving as president of the parent-teacher organization and organizing fundraisers. She and her family are also members of the International Sons of Norway organization, as both she and her husband have significant Norwegian heritage. Laura has been an officer at their local lodge for years where they hold events to celebrate and share their heritage with Scandinavians and non-Scandinavians alike. Laura is also an avid reader, stating that “You give me a book, and I’m good for the night.”

Laura and her daughter, Kaitlyn

Laura admits that she has been accused of being a workaholic her entire career, but she is ok with that and has been working on finding more of a balance in her life. She says that in 10 years, she wants to be doing what she is doing now, but she also wants to start thinking about what she will do when she retires. She has considered volunteering with conservation groups and even running for political office.

“I’m kind of at a time where I ask myself ‘Alright, what do I want to be engaged in doing alongside my job in the next five or ten years’. I just want to start thinking about what I am going to do next,” she said.

What advice does she have for young people interested in science?

Laura says, “If science is what you want to do, do it because it’s what you want to do. Don’t do science, or for that matter, any career path, because someone tells you they think you should.”

Laura recalls that people did suggest to her early on in college that she should pursue a master’s degree. But she didn’t get her masters or her doctorate because of what other people thought. She did it because she wanted to, and she did it when she wanted to. Laura also says to do what interests you and don’t worry about the chronological age when you start.

“You’ve got to do what’s right for you when it’s right for you. You can seek impressions, thoughts, and ideas from others, but make sure it’s what YOU really want to do.”