Rows of spotless test tubes. Sterile columns of petri dishes. One white lab coat after another, after another …. For the non-scientist the excitement and passion of scientific research can sometimes be hard to see.
At the University of Southern California, Dr. Maria Lauda Tomasi works in a white lab coat. She works in a field she loves “altered hepatic methionine metabolism in hepatocellular carcinoma.”
For many of us scientific investigation finished with the infamous lab reports of high school, or maybe college. For us “altered hepatic methionine metabolism in hepatocellular carcinoma” plunges us back into a mass of test tubes and petri dishes.
So how can we get past that lab coat to understand the ambition that brought Maria Lauda Tomasi from Sardinia to France to the United States?
Let’s write up our own lab report, this time on the scientist herself.
SUBJECT OF STUDY
Maria Lauda Tomasi. Ex-cocktail waitress, prize-winning researcher, born and bred Sardinian, researcher striving to discover what mechanisms could block the onset of tumor formation.
To become a principle investigator in molecular pathology, “to be the boss and mentor of myself.”
Experimental curiosity, hard work, headstrong drive.
After finishing high school Lauda was unsure of what she wanted to do, but she certainly didn’t imagine astronauts and cancer cells in her future. “I had the distinct impression from my family, typically Italian, that I would follow in my brother’s footsteps.” That meant enrolling in the medical faculty at the University of Sassari.
However Lauda is, by her own admission, headstrong, dedicated and positive. While she began in medicine just like her brother, she decided to enroll in biology as well and see what happened.
After two years of this double major Lauda made a choice that would draw her away from her brother’s footsteps. She decided to focus on molecular biology. That’s when it happened, “my love of science was born.”
This love has created a career path that is an interesting mix of typically Sardinian persistence and international adaptability. At 21 an internship in France with the European Space Agency led her to study the immune system of astronauts in microgravity. Returning from France she completed her university degree with a thesis that studied the antioxidant properties of the mirto communis plant (Common Myrtle).
At the end of university Lauda found herself once again at “a crossroads.” Then a funding opportunity opened up at the University of Sassari with the renowned molecular biologist, Professor Francesco Feo.
After two years working with Dr. Feo in the Center for Experimental Pathology and Oncology she moved north to follow a doctoral program at the University of Turin.
With the possibility of doing the last two years of her doctoral research in another country, Lauda was off again. In 2007 she arrived in United States with a lot of intelligence, but little understanding of English.
“The first two weeks were utter confusion. I was unable to understand anything. If someone spoke in English, if someone spoke Spanish…”
“In the beginning I was obviously, without a doubt, fascinated and shocked with the enormity of America … However, I lived those first 18 months with what I would consider an obsession: an obsession to give it my best. To find and take the minutes and seconds that could enrich my experience here.”
When her 18 months were up, Lauda didn’t remain at a crossroads for long. She beat out over a thousand other young researchers to win another year of funding. By now her path was clear: a year later she once again secured another two years of funding from her home region, Sardinia.
The support from Sardinia has helped Lauda grow both professionally and personally in her time abroad, but “it was only when my husband came (to America) that I moved closer to what I had in Italy.” Even after four years of an American life, Lauda continues to speak to her mother “for about an hour everyday” on Skype.
Lauda’s Italian education and Sardinian background now feed her passion for science and her current research project in the United States. “I owe a lot to the Italian school system … it prepares you for competition, which is really fierce in the United States … it makes you a strong competitor and gives you both an educational and cultural background. “
Her colleagues clearly think that Lauda’s numerous “crossroads” have led her to the right place. This year Lauda received one of the highest scores in the competition for three years of funding as a prestigious Postdoctoral Fellow supported by the National Institute of Health. Then, on April 11th she flew into Washington D.C. to receive the Experimental Pathologist Training MERIT award from the American Society of Investigative Pathology.
“It is impossible that I could ever stop doing what I do.”