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A Genius at Work

Dec 17, 2008 8:00 AM

Susan Mango, Ph.D., an investigator with the University’s Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), learned in September that she is a genius. That’s when the MacArthur Foundation named Mango one of 25 nationwide recipients of this year’s “genius” grants or MacArthur Fellowships.

A developmental biologist and professor of oncological sciences at the U School of Medicine, Mango wasn’t aware she’d been nominated for the no-strings-attached $500,000 award. “I can still hardly believe it,” Mango said after learning she’d received the grant, which the MacArthur Foundation president said “celebrates extraordinarily creative individuals who inspire new heights in human achievement.”

Mango, who is visibly uncomfortable with the “genius” label, studies tiny worms called nematodes to discover genes that control the formation and physiology of the digestive tract, some of which often are mutated in cancer or birth defects.

U of U President Michael K. Young said Mango’s enthusiasm for her science and her clarity in thinking and presenting her work has catapulted her to a national reputation and leadership role in developmental biology. Mango came to HCI as a junior researcher more than 20 years ago, and credits the University for consistently “putting faith in people who are completely untried.” It’s easy to hire a known entity, she says. “Hats off to Utah for hiring junior faculty in many different departments.”

She’s also grateful to Huntsman for giving researchers the space and financial support, so that they have the freedom to think about science rather than funding. “In science it’s really important to be able to dream a little bit, and HCI gives us the support and flexiblity to do that”, she said. In fact, Mango said she wouldn’t have started the research behind the 2002 paper that she’s best known for, had she not been at Huntsman. It would have been too risky.

Mango is working on several different research projects, but says she couldn’t choose her favorite. “It would be like picking a favorite child.” When asked what the future holds, Mango says she’ll continue to follow the science. “It always turns up surprises.”

For more information on Mango's research, visit The Mango Lab.

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