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Susan Wente, Ph.D., is VUMCís vice chancellor for Research and senior associate dean for Biomedical Sciences. (photo by Anne Rayner)

VUMC Reporter Profile: Wente relishes challenges, both large and small

BY: JESSICA PASLEY

5/07/2010 - When Susan Wente is on a mission, it's probably best to just move out of her way and watch the magic happen.

She seems to have a knack for getting things done.

Take the summer of 1976. Wente's goal was to make enough money to purchase her first pair of contact lenses.

As a teenager growing up in rural Iowa, she worked in the soybean and corn fields. It wasn't a glamorous job; rather she would return home after a 10-hour day, exhausted, filthy and sliced up.

“But I had a great tan and earned really good money,” smiled Wente, now Vanderbilt University Medical Center's vice chancellor for Research and senior associate dean for Biomedical Sciences. “And you got a bonus if you worked the weekends. I worked 14-15 days in a row that one summer.”

Susan Wente, Ph.D., vice chancellor for Research, also stays active with her own research, here leading a meeting in her Cell and Developmental Biology lab. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Susan Wente, Ph.D., vice chancellor for Research, also stays active with her own research, here leading a meeting in her Cell and Developmental Biology lab. (photo by Anne Rayner)

She also juggled working at the local A&W restaurant.

“When soft contact lenses first hit the market they were almost $2,000,” said Wente. “I worked the whole summer and took all of my paychecks and signed them over to my parents.

“It wasn't until years later that they told me I was $200 short. They just didn't have the heart to tell me. But it was all about working hard for what you wanted. I wasn't afraid of hard work. Now that I look back, I guess I was trained early in that way.”

Wente is the oldest of three children, born in Nebraska and raised in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Her mother, Betty, was a registered nurse and her father, Harold, an educator.

“My mother probably would have been a doctor had she not been born and raised in a very, very small town in Iowa,” said Wente. “She retired about 10 years ago as the emergency department head nurse. When we were young, she worked the evening shift and every other weekend and, with seniority, moved to dayshifts. She always had everything at home completely organized for juggling work and family. I really had built-in role models.”

“My dad seemed to always be going to summer school or working on his thesis,” said Wente. “When I was a freshman in high school, he got his doctorate in education.”

Her father started off as a high school teacher, then a junior college instructor. He later became the chair of the business department at the local junior college, Iowa Lakes, and then was named dean of the South Campus of the college.

Mentoring young scientists is a passion of Wente’s. Here, she talks with Marie Cross, Ph.D., who recently received her doctorate from Emory University. (photo by Mary Donaldson)

Mentoring young scientists is a passion of Wente’s. Here, she talks with Marie Cross, Ph.D., who recently received her doctorate from Emory University. (photo by Mary Donaldson)

It was quite a feat considering he was one of 11 children and the first in his generation to go to college. Education in the Wente household was a top priority.

And Susan Wente was no slacker.

 

Early achiever

She excelled in math and science and was a valedictorian of her high school class. She was a cheerleader and a member of the theater. It was her skill in forensics that landed her at the University of Iowa on a scholarship.

“Debate was a big part of my life in high school,” said Wente. “It was much like doing science research. You study a topic in depth, present a hypothesis or model, and then defend it. But the funny thing is, I went to college on a scholarship from the forensic league, but it wasn't tied to debating in college.

“But debate was my in,” she said. “It gave me opportunities.”

Despite the financial assistance provided by the scholarship, it did not cover all of Wente's college expenses. In the same way that she worked to pay for her own contact lenses, Wente devised a plan to help defray the cost of her college education.

“I had it planned out,” recalled Wente. “There was no such thing as AP classes at the high school that I went to, so I studied on my own and I took the advanced placement tests through the community college.

“When I got to the University of Iowa, I had a lot of credits from taking the exams. And I also decided to see if I could test out of some of the freshman courses, which I did. This saved me both money and time.”

She also chose a major that she thought would provide a steady job upon graduation. Her chosen field was dental hygiene. That lasted for two weeks.

In order to be a pre-dental hygiene major, Wente was required to take freshman English, a course she tested out of and was not interested in “re-taking.”

Luckily her adviser saw her potential.

“She looked through my transcripts and records and suggested I go open major, and if at the end of the year I still wanted to be a dental hygienist I could revisit it.

“All my courses were changed from chemistry for nurses and dental hygienists to chemistry for pre-meds and science majors. I don't ever recall really wanting to be a doctor. But I pursued the science courses. It was a turning point. And perhaps this was the start of my taking advantage of opportunities that changed my life.”

 

Grabbing opportunities

By the end of her freshman year, Wente found her place in the Biochemistry Department and has never looked back.

Cooking is a favored activity for Wente and her family, from left, daughter Allison, 14, husband, Chris Hardy, and daughter Lindsay, 11. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Cooking is a favored activity for Wente and her family, from left, daughter Allison, 14, husband, Chris Hardy, and daughter Lindsay, 11. (photo by Anne Rayner)

“It was here that I first learned the thrill and rigor of basic biomedical research,” said Wente. “I found my career path by being given opportunities by others. When the opportunities come along, you have to be prepared to take them.”

This frame of mind has paid off for Wente. It hasn't hurt that she is an optimist, loves a challenge and is an organizational wiz to boot.

Her youngest brother, David, said Wente has always excelled.

“She has always been focused and ambitious,” said David Wente, materials utilization manager at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “She was active in just about everything. She was always striving for excellence even at a young age.

“She has managed to accomplish a significant amount and as a woman in science, she has been able to break down barriers that have existed in a male-dominated field.”

Wente completed her bachelors of science at the University of Iowa, graduating with honors and high distinction in Biochemistry. She went on to the University of California Berkeley, where she received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry. She later did her post-doctoral work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, followed by another fellowship at Rockefeller University.

Her career began as an assistant professor in Cell Biology and Physiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis in 1993. She was quickly promoted to associate professor with tenure. She came to Vanderbilt in 2002 as professor and chair of Cell and Developmental Biology.

 

Research leadership

In her role as associate vice chancellor for Research at VUMC, her focus is on the basic sciences. A multi-faceted post, she is involved in promoting research discoveries, providing the infrastructure for cutting-edge, basic science research and designing strategic planning and vision efforts for Vanderbilt's basic science research efforts.

As the senior associate dean, she spearheads the basic science graduate education and post-doctorate training for the Medical Center. With more than 700 graduate students and more than 500 post doctorate fellows, it's a hefty job.

Wente cheers during her daughter Lindsay’s basketball game, above, and gives her a hug afterward, below. (photos by Anne Rayner)

Wente cheers during her daughter Lindsay’s basketball game, above, and gives her a hug afterward, below. (photos by Anne Rayner)

And if her administrative duties are not enough, she continues to operate her lab, which focuses on the exchange of proteins and RNA between the nucleus and cytoplasm, or the communication within cells. Her work studying the mechanism for highly selective, bidirectional exchange of proteins and genetic material between the nucleus and cytoplasm has been nationally recognized.

Wente has discovered that her love for the basic sciences and the desire to tackle challenges intensifies with every professional move.

“I feel that once I have made the most contributions I can to something, I have to find a different challenge,” she said. “That is why I probably love research so much. You never answer the question even though you may have found one thing out. But that just means there are five more questions to ask.

“I think people have visions of scientists working by themselves in a lab at the bench,” said Wente. “But there's a lot of interaction and it's a team-building career.”

For Wente, the team aspect plays a huge role in how she impacts people. The ability to mentor or train others is very attractive to her. It's a trait others in her field say is very evident.

“Other's people's success really puts gas in her tank,” said Maurine Linder, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Molecular Medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. “People can sense that she genuinely cares about their success and is really passionate and engaged in their success. She is a stakeholder.

“It is one of the reasons she has been successful in training people in her lab and as a department chair,” said Linder. “People really can sense that she genuinely cares about them and wants them to do well.”

Linder said that Wente has a tremendous amount of common sense and knows how to quickly identify fundamental issues when it comes to problem solving.

“She just knows how to distill complex problems down to key issues. She is very good at designing solutions,” added Linder. “I am not surprised the she is where she is or has done what she has. It was evident early on that she had the capacity for leadership.”

 

Balancing act

And it's not just leadership at work. She exemplifies a similar style at home too.

In the four years that Dana Reno worked as a nanny for Wente, she was often in awe at how well her boss was able to balance work and family.

Shown here on a recent visit to Chicago, Wente and her family are avid travelers.

Shown here on a recent visit to Chicago, Wente and her family are avid travelers.

“She is the master scheduler,” laughed Reno. “She is very detailed and knows what is going on, when and where it's going on. She is passionate about her girls (Allison, 14, and Lindsay, 11) and has a phenomenal commitment to them.

“No matter how busy she is or how much she is traveling, there is not a moment in their lives she doesn't know about. The kids are her life. Whenever she is with the children, they have all of her, 100 percent.”

Chris Hardy, Wente's husband, said his wife's successes (both at work and home) have a lot to do with her persistence.

“When she decides she wants something, she never gives up on it,” said Hardy, Ph.D., a former associate professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt. “Once she decides she wants to do something, really, it's just a matter of time.

“As a scientist it is a great quality,” said Hardy. “That's just the way she is with life. That's the way she is with science and with home.”

Married for 20 years, Hardy and Wente met in graduate school while at Berkeley. He was two years ahead of her. Although they worked in different labs and in different departments, they had the same circle of friends with a similar interest — parties that revolved around cooking and eating. It's a trend that started in graduate school and continues today.

“We were in grad school with very little money,” said Hardy, “So we traded food with friends. We actually kept that up when we moved to Manhattan and Wash U and, to some degree, here (Vanderbilt) as well. We have both developed a love for cooking.”

With more than 100 cookbooks, the Wente/Hardy clan has a definite thing for cooking. Their daughters have mastered several dishes as well.

 

Seeking adventure

Traveling is also high on the list of favorites for the family, and is a pastime that began while the couple was in graduate school. One of Hardy's favorite pictures of his wife was taken during one of their camping excursions in the Trinity Alps in California.

Taken moments after finding their way back to a trail after being lost in California’s Trinity Alps, this is one of the favorite photos of Wente’s husband, Chris Hardy, Ph.D.

Taken moments after finding their way back to a trail after being lost in California’s Trinity Alps, this is one of the favorite photos of Wente’s husband, Chris Hardy, Ph.D.

Hardy said with map in hand, the two took off on their great adventure.

“We had not told anyone we were going. We just picked up and drove there,” he said. “In the course of hiking we got lost off the trail because it disappeared in the snow.”

Stuck on a large hill, pummeled by hail and searching for the trail, the pair decided to set up camp and start the hunt again in the morning. They didn't find it until late the next day.

“It was a great adventure,” laughed Hardy. “I took a picture of Susan right after we found the trail. She had this big smile. I loved it because of the expression on her face. It is a great reminder of the good time we had together.

“Of course looking back, it was probably a little crazy that we had not told anyone where we were going. But I've still got that picture of the adventure we shared and came through.”

Wente recalled that same trip and laughed at the memory.

“We didn't completely panic,” she said. “We didn't get mad at each other. But I do remember not being happy when we got to the top of the hill and it started hailing. Trying to get down the rocks and boulders with packs on was not fun.

“But we came through it together.”

Together. Collectively. Jointly. As a team. Wente has woven that concept into all aspects of her life. She recognizes that she did not come to this place in her life, alone. She was supported, guided and championed. It's a gift she plans to return.

“I think that I will have more impact on the people I have helped train than by the discoveries and the papers I've published,” said Wente. “The papers and discoveries will be eclipsed by the next set of papers and discoveries of future scientists.

“The people you train and help on their next career steps and path, it's almost like each one of them goes out and trains another set of people. It becomes an exponential set of impacts that you can have.”

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