Women in Science, Interview with Marilee Benore, Professor of Biochemistry & Biology at University of Michigan Dearborn

marileebenoreMarilee Benore is a Professor of Biochemistry & Biology at the University of Michigan Dearborn where she teaches and studies vitamins.  She has won awards for her mentoring and will be co-chair of the UMICH Academic Women’s Caucus Sarah Goddard Power Award Committee. Marilee has always loved finding things, watching things and experimenting with household items to discover something (that she thought was) brand new.  She enjoys combining science and creative thinking to solve problems.  Marilee also enjoys the science of her hobbies, such as making glass beads.  She shares her experiences and insights with us…

Sarah Worsham: Please tell us about what you do and what type of research you’re doing.

Marilee Benore: I am a college Professor, so I teach college students, and I also do research, and some of my students help me in the lab. I study vitamin transport. Vitamins are nutrients that come from food, and after you eat them, they have to get to the right places in the body to be used. We study one particular vitamin, riboflavin, and the protein that carries it around, called, not surprisingly, riboflavin binding protein. Riboflavin is bright yellow. It even glows under ultraviolet light! We study chickens and eggs as our model, as we can see how a chick eats nutrients, and transports some of them to the egg. Our work helps us to understand how those tiny molecule get to the right place in can be used by cells.

I have a flock of hens that I keep at Michigan State, because the University of Michigan doesn’t have an agricultural or animal studies program. The mutant flock cannot transport riboflavin to the eggs, so it is a natural model and we can use the eggs for studies. We can learn a lot about how molecules get to the right place in your body.

Sarah: What’s your day-to-day like?

Marilee: Every day is different! My schedule varies from day to day, so there is a lot of flexibility on some days, and none on others, like when I have to be in the classroom.  I teach, I work in the lab, I grade, I write papers, I review text books, I mentor and advise students, and I go to meetings. A lot of students work in my lab, so it is never a dull moment because they work hard, but they also like to have fun and have become good friends.

Sarah: What is the highlight of your day?

Marilee: I love working in the lab. I enjoy doing experiments. As silly as it sounds, I still like to make reagents, and pour solutions, all knowing I might be the first person to discover something no one else knows yet!

Sarah: What’s the most difficult part of your job?

Marilee: I really do not enjoy grading. I like teaching and watching students learn, and sometime they have not learned as much as you thought…so that makes grading rather sad. I worry about how to help my students learn. But it can also be a bit boring especially in a big class, where you might grade the same question for 120 or more students.

Sarah: In your entire career, what’s been your favorite job or project?

Marilee: I think right now is my favorite project. I am working with two other female professors and a whole bunch of students and we are all collaborating on projects. Sometimes the students will send me results, and sometimes they send me the pics of them doing silly things in lab, like practicing moonwalking. The students are so passionate, and  enjoy working together and sharing their experimental results!

Sarah: Was there a particular event or moment when you decided to pursue a career in STEM?

Marilee: I was in grade school when I realized how much I liked doing experiments. I loved nature, and I liked trying to mix things up in the house to see what happens. I am a good chemist, but I am not a good cook. I used to make things to put on my face that I invented as skin creams, and I liked to play with a chemistry set.

Sarah: What has been most important in terms of getting where you are today?

Marilee: Knowing that I wanted to do something fun and exciting. Pushing myself to try new experiences. Knowing that I might always be the best, but that I can make a contribution. I think what I do is important and makes a difference to others, and that makes me happy and feel like a part of a global effort.

Sarah: Did you have any mentors or role models growing up that led you to this career?  How did they influence you?

Marilee: Several. I had lots of nuns, and many taught me science and math. So I always knew women could be scientists. I was in scouts, and thought the women who were our troop leaders were amazing. So I always knew women could be smart leaders, and be in charge and get things done, and handle any problems and be creative. I wanted a career, because I knew I wanted to be able to support myself. When I grew up we didn’t have a lot of extra money, and so I hoped to be able to earn enough to buy the things I needed.

Sarah: What was your favorite game or toy growing up?

Marilee: I loved  riding my bike all over town. It made me feel free and adventurous.

Sarah: Are there any skills or courses that have been more useful than you initially expected?

Marilee: Math is important. Learning to use your hands is important, so things like playing music, sewing, drawing.. it all comes in very handy.

Sarah: Did you have to overcome any obstacles to get where you are?

Marilee: It took me a little while longer to get to my level (full professor as we call it) because I was a single mom. So I was busier at home and had other duties, which make working in the lab a bit more difficult. But this job gave me the flexibility to do it and take care of my kids, do my teaching and research, but also be the soccer coach.

Sarah: Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to your gender?  How did you handle them?

Marilee: Oh sure. I worked in a chemical plant and had some harassment issues at work, and even in my college days I was turned down for a lab job just because I was a woman. And that is why I am so active in issues to support women in science, and engineering and math. I have learned to be more proactive for myself.

Sarah: What advice do you have to anyone interested in a similar career?

Marilee: Make it fun. Try new things, Ask questions, Ask for advice and help when you need it. Expect to make mistakes. Talk to your coworkers and share. Be helpful not competitive.

Sarah: In your opinion, how can we get more girls interested in STEM careers?

Marilee: Role models. More advice. Helping people understand how stereotyping and discrimination hurt everyone. Changing our ridiculous work hour expectations, so thing are better for men and women.  Help girls and young women learn that they can change the world with what they do in STEM.

Sarah: What types of questions and concerns are raised by women and girls you have mentored regarding STEM careers?

Marilee: Many of the questions are about careers and how to time things like school, families, jobs, and hobbies. How they can get balance between school and work. Sometimes they just need a listening ear and a different way to look at a situation, so they can figure out how to handle a challenge at work.

Thank you so much Marilee!  We hope you found her story helpful, interesting and inspiring.  If you would like to share your own story, please submit your information and we’ll be in contact soon!

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