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Vital Signs

Investigator Insight

In this section, we highlight the human side of biomedical investigation, putting a few questions to a researcher at DMS-DHMC.

Mary Jo Turk, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Immunology

Turk studies how the immune system can be used to treat progressive cancers. She has been at DMS and the Norris Cotton Cancer Center since 2004.

What are your primary research interests?
We are currently developing immunotherapies to provide long-lived protection against tumor recurrence and metastasis following surgery. We are also trying to understand how the autoimmune destruction of tissues enhances immune responses to cancers that arise from those tissues. Our main focus is on melanoma, but these principles also apply to other types of cancer.

What would you consider your most important work?
My most important work involved melanoma, but not in a laboratory sense. Last spring, my aunt was diagnosed with end-stage melanoma. The tumor was inoperable, and her doctors offered only palliative treatments. I contacted several doctors at Dartmouth and around the country, and we discovered that her tumor expressed a rare mutation that might enable it to respond to a new drug. After three months on the drug, my aunt's tumor has shrunk to less than half its original size, and she is again leading a happy, active life. I never expected that my knowledge of melanoma could have such an effect on the life of a loved one.

What are the keys to success in science?
Be original and be objective. Being original can be challenging. You may start working on a project only to find that part of it has just been published, or that someone else is going to beat you to the answer. Being objective can also be difficult, especially considering all the biases that are actually necessary to build the foundation of your knowledge. Just ask the right questions in the right ways, and let the data speak for itself. Allow the data to guide you to your next hypothesis.

What's your favorite nonwork activity?
Spending time with my daughter, Claire, who is 2½ years old. Our favorite activities include building houses out of blocks, going for walks, reading Doctor Seuss stories, and grocery shopping (she's the one pushing the tiny cart).

What is a talent that you wish you had?
I really wish I could play the guitar. I took lessons when I was in grade school and remember how much I used to enjoy playing. I wish I could play for my family and friends (although everyone would agree it's best if I don't sing).

Finish this sentence: If I had more time I would . . .
Read more fiction and spend more time traveling with my family.

What do you admire most in other people?
Compassion and selflessness. I don't believe society values these characteristics appropriately. I see too few people who truly embody them.

What three people would you like to have over for dinner?
Martin Short (the comedian), Karl Rahner (the theologian), and Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto (to cook dinner).

Where do you do your best thinking?
Sanborn Library on the Hanover campus, because no one knows I go there—darn you reporters!

What did you plan to be when you grew up?
Believe it or not, I wanted to be an astronaut. I even had a summer job working at NASA for a few years. After realizing that my real interests lay in biology, I contemplated whether I could study the effects of zero gravity on cancers, then decided to give up the astronaut thing.

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