PRODUCTS & INNOVATION
Mary Rodgers: Scientist, mother, colleague, wife, friend, driven by compassion and curiosity.
Nov 27 2019
A pilot dizzied by aviophobia, the extreme fear of flying.
A racecar driver slowed by tachophobia, the fear of speed.
The cruel daily double: A clergyman living with ecclesiophobia (the fear of churches) and uranophobia (the fear of heaven).
A chef simmering in cibophobia, the fear of food.
Kids who claim didaskaleinophobia, the fear of school. (Indicated cure: Summer.)
Ridiculous, right? Patently absurd. Couldn’t happen. Wouldn’t happen. It’s illogical, Watson.
How about a scientist whose passion and profession demand that she work in identifying, cataloging and tracking pathogens in blood who has such pronounced hemophobia — the fear of blood — that she was regularly overcome at the sight of it?
“Throughout my life, I have always fainted at the sight of blood up until really only probably five years ago,” said Mary Rodgers, an Abbott principal scientist who spends her work life hunting viruses as part of the company’s diagnostics business. “When I was in high school, I would always pass out when anyone started talking about blood. And when I got my blood drawn.
“When I first started working at a lab in college, they showed me where the biohazard waste was for when they were collecting blood and discarding the samples. And I had to sit down. ‘I’m sorry, I’m going to pass out.’ I was so embarrassed.
"And after that, I worked really hard to find a way that I could work around blood that wouldn't make me feel this way."
Mary Rodgers isn’t one to let an overbearing dread get in the way of her calling, not when that work is so crucial to keeping the world's blood supply safe.
Born in southern Wisconsin, Mary is the first of two daughters to Dirk and Kathy Rodgers, an electrical engineer and nurse, respectively.
Growing up, their father read Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Mary and sister Jane. While they found Verne quite boring, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes captivated.
"As you hear the story, you have all the same information as Sherlock Holmes. But he puts it together because he notices the parts that are important. And in a way, that's what science is like," Mary said. “There’s a wealth of information, especially in the age of genomics. There’s too much information. The good scientist can pick apart which part is actually important, the same way Sherlock Holmes does."
Their father hoped his daughters would follow in his footsteps.
"I tried to convince them. They just laughed. They both wanted to be scientists,” said Dirk, adding, “Mary wanted to be a scientist from a very early age."
But what kind of scientist, Mary wasn’t sure. Her father-in-law was unexpectedly and particularly helpful.
"I was just starting out, trying to figure out what I wanted to even major in. I was thinking I was going to major in chemical engineering, and I was having a hard time. I was like, 'I don't know, I'm not getting into this," Mary said.
She turns to her husband Matt, who is hearing this for the first time.
"And your dad was like, ‘I don’t know, I just don't see you as a chemistry person, you seem more like a biology person.' And I said, 'Well maybe I'll take a biology class.' And then I became a biology person."
Matt's reaction: "Wow."
"That's some intuition he has," Matt said. "He didn't say that to me. He said, 'You want to go to film school? Fine.' "
Mary graduated with her bachelor’s in biochemistry at Wisconsin-Madison. She earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in biological and biomedical science. Her post-doc came during her years at Southern California.
Jane, two-and-a-half years younger, is also a scientist. She works as a medical writer at a pharmaceutical company. It was on Jane’s advice that Mary came back to the Midwest to work for Abbott after years on the coasts.
Their mother sees influences of mom and dad in both.
"I used to tell the kids they got their work habits from me and their intelligence from their dad," Kathy said.
As a child, it was clear to her family that Mary was born with her mother’s natural instinct as a nurse to care for others. It’s a trait that would drive her work to improve humanity’s health as an adult.
“My father tried to quit smoking for many years and multiple times. She climbed up on his lap (at 3) and she said, ‘Grandpa, you stink.’ And he just quit cold turkey after that. He didn’t want to smell like cigarette smoke around his grand kids,” Kathy said.
“This is a very famous story in our family,” Mary said. “When my grandpa used to tell it, he said that all I did was ask, ‘Why do you smoke? Why do you smoke?’ And he just didn’t have a good answer. And he quit.”
That concern for those in her immediate world as well as people around the globe is evident in Mary’s work.
“I remember vividly telling her to use her intelligence to help other people,” Kathy said. “And she would seek out a way to do that.”
She found it at Abbott.
A world of possibilities
The development of many of Abbott’s diagnostics tools is bolstered by the work done by Abbott’s Global Surveillance Program.
The program is a one-of-a-kind collection of HIV and hepatitis strains from around the world. It includes 78,000 samples collected since 1994 from 45 countries on six continents. It’s utterly massive. And it’s growing, new strains added all the time.
And without it, the company’s tests could potentially miss new pathogens or strains of established bugs.
“I am absolutely in love with viruses,” said Mary.
(She’s totally serious. Here she is waxing philosophical on viral paradox: “Viruses can’t really do anything on their own; they’re completely dependent on people. And yet they take over our lives, and to me that juxtaposition of inability to fend for themselves and the ability to make someone ill is really interesting to me.”)
When samples are added to Abbott’s viral library — kept safe in deep, frozen state — they’re checked and re-checked to see how the diseases are mutating. That sorting and cataloging is done by Mary and her team.
Here’s how it works.
Medical workers from around the world “take little tubes, put them in one giant box, put it in on dry ice and ship it all the way over here to Abbott Park,” said Mary, who manages the program. “Then we test them. We look to see if we can confirm the results that our collaborators found.
“Both the sample and the sequences are very valuable, because we can now say that if a strain such as this is found, this is the kind of test result you would expect.”
Abbott’s institutional knowledge, understanding those expectations, is critical to the public’s health. It’s an investment that has far surpassed the usual R&D timeline of five years.
But it really is elementary: If a virus can’t be found in testing, it can’t be treated. That’s how outbreaks happen.
“So if we have a test that can really detect every single strain of the virus, then we can say for sure, ‘Yes, you have this,’ or, ‘No, you do not,’” Mary said.
“We can really challenge our tests and determine how well they perform. So that goes into the design of new tests for FDA approval. And then that test now goes back out into the world and is used at the same clinics where the first sample was collected.”
It all adds up
Erin Lyons and Lorena Mora-Blanco have known Mary for more than a decade, since their days in and around Harvard yard. They’re friends and confidants, participants in late-night sessions of science and philosophy, as one does in college.
Independently, they describe Mary similarly.
Lorena: “Quiet strength.”
Erin: “Unflappable. Even-keeled.”
Lorena: “Her passion for public health is apparent.”
Erin’s turn. A story stands out, about how Mary knows when she’s done with an experiment: “Either when I can’t see — can’t focus my eyes — or when I start crying.”
(“It was Lorena who said that!” Mary said later.)
Erin adds: “She has such a capacity for hard work.”
Mary elaborates: “To be a scientist, you’re never not working. You’re always thinking about your project and what you need to do next. You’re always mulling it over in the back of your mind. It’s your whole life. It’s every minute of your day. It’s not just your job.”
Said Mary’s husband Matt: “She’s always wanted to do something that’s bigger than herself. What she’s doing at Abbott is really fascinating. And it’s really important. It’s just really great work.”
It’s her mission to do her part at Abbott to make a better life for people suffering the effects of HIV and hepatitis, to make a better world for her family, for her kids and — someday — her grandkids.
So, Sherlock Holmes, have you figured out who Mary Rodgers is?
“Unflappable. Even-keeled. And just very down-to-Earth,” Erin said.
“She would be the person I would turn to” during a viral outbreak, Lorena said.
She certainly is. Elementary.
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