Benedictine alumna’s mission: To improve condition of global health

September 8, 2015

Lisle, Illinois ~ Whether it is a major in Chemistry, Health Science or Computer Information Systems, alumni of Benedictine University’s College of Science benefit from a rigorous education provided by faculty and staff who truly care about their students’ success. This commitment to student learning allows Benedictine alumni, such as Mary Thomas Nicholas, to go on to do great things.

Since her beginnings as an undergraduate majoring in Biochemistry at Benedictine 20 years ago, Nicholas has done a lot to advance the future of health care and medical research around the nation and the world.

After graduating from Benedictine and earning a Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of Illinois, Nicholas worked in a number of positions helping institutions develop strategies to engage diverse populations in research that can reduce health disparities, advance policy to maximize the use of scientific resources and communicate their value, and build a community of researchers and other participants to work toward solving complex global health challenges.

In 2006, she became a Howard Hughes Postdoctoral Fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where she investigated the molecular basis of disease. In addition to research, she had the opportunity to participate in the Radio Cares for St. Jude Kids fundraising program, an activity that enlightened her to the importance of public engagement in health research.

In 2010, she developed the framework and methodology for supporting the analysis of the Autism Spectrum Disorder Research Portfolio as a science policy analyst for the National Institute of Mental Health.

The portfolio, which encompassed 985 federally funded projects worth $316 million, and her analysis were included in a report issued by a federal advisory committee and read by members of Congress, federal agencies and national autism advocacy organizations.

Later that same year, Nicholas helped develop the Cancer Human Biobank, advancing programs to provide health researchers with access to high-quality biospecimens (tissue, blood, plasma and other human materials) for cancer diagnosis and analysis under a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the National Cancer Institute.

“I reported on trends and analysis of several cross-cutting issues, including how to strengthen worldwide biorepositories (libraries where biospecimens are stored and made available for scientists to study for clinical or research purposes), human subject rights protection in the era of genomic medicine, bioeconomic considerations, biomarker discovery and educational outreach programs,” Nicholas said. “I also initiated and drafted a strategic plan for engaging biorepositories in developed and developing countries.”

In 2012, she served as a program officer for the Grand Challenges team in the Global Health Division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. While there, she helped implement activities as part of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Gates Foundation and the Government of India. This involved the awarding of up to $25 million each over five years to Indian researchers and scientists seeking innovative discoveries in vaccine, drug and agriculture product development, and other interventions related to malnutrition, family and child health. In other projects, she worked closely with grantees to make sure they were meeting objectives and helped them communicate updates of their work.

“Every problem-solver needs support, and through my position with the Gates Foundation I strove to direct resources to grantees to help accelerate their ideas into solutions that could change the world,” Nicholas said.

Today, she is director of Genomic Resources for the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research. This nonprofit integrated health organization focuses on the health and well-being of more than 9.3 million members, many of whom participate in research studies that can help improve health outcomes. Together with an interdisciplinary team from across the United States, Nicholas is working to build a research bank that can be used by scientists who need access to high-quality biospecimens and associated data.

“What I enjoy most about this role is that there is an opportunity to explore innovative ways to engage populations who have traditionally been underrepresented in science, to include communities as partners in the research we do, and listen to their input on the kinds of health solutions their respective communities seek and value,” Nicholas said.

In 2015, Nicholas was named a Rising Star among Benedictine University alumni for her leadership and innovation in her career, as well as personal dedication to philanthropic endeavors in her community.

Nicholas has some advice for students who are thinking of pursuing a career in science or medical research. She said that to be competitive, students should combine their expertise in science with marketing, public health, communications or art and seek out mentors wherever they can.

“It’s no longer enough for one to specialize in a single field,” Nicholas said. “If you want to get more career mileage, you must be able to work with experts in other fields and be able to articulate the innovativeness and impact of research to a variety of stakeholders.

“I’m a big fan of science and technology policy fellowships,” she added. “I believe these fellowships are catalytic to one’s career in science and a great way to be surrounded by brilliant and passionate scientists. I also highly recommend spending some time in Washington, D.C., to better understand how science and federal policy intersect and to meet other leaders of diverse backgrounds. There are plenty of mentors and role models to meet from around the world.”

Benedictine students have a unique advantage due to the University’s recognized strength in the sciences and foundation in a values-based liberal arts curriculum which helps them stand apart from their peers and succeed in their careers and as leaders in their communities.

An overwhelming majority of employers (80 percent) surveyed in 2013 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities agreed that regardless of major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.

“Unlike larger universities, my science professors were available and made it a priority to make sure my questions were answered,” Nicholas recalled. “This level of attention also gave my professors a better chance to get to know me and my abilities so they could eventually write strong letters of recommendation that helped me in my academic and career endeavors after Benedictine.”

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Benedictine University is an independent Roman Catholic institution located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois and Mesa, Arizona. Founded in 1887, Benedictine provides 56 undergraduate majors and 16 graduate and four doctoral programs. Benedictine University is ranked No. 2 among the country's fastest-growing campuses between 2003-2013 in The Chronicle of Higher Education's list of private nonprofit doctoral institutions, and Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the fifth consecutive year in 2015. Benedictine University's Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain's Chicago Business as the fifth largest in the Chicago area in 2015.

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