Lori McMahon, Ph.D., loves a particular phrase coined by the National Institutes of Health’s Institute of General Medical Sciences: “Curiosity creates cures.” So as the chief scientific officer for the Medical University of South Carolina and a basic neuroscience researcher with a 24-year career, she’s making it her mission to ensure that researchers can follow their curiosity to make discoveries.
“It’s really important that we are always curious – that we are asking why, what if and how does something work under healthy conditions and how it gets changed by disease,” McMahon said.
“Curiosity isn’t found in just one place or time in biomedical research; it reaches from bench research all the way to physicians at the bedside asking how we can improve patient care. It’s all research; it’s new knowledge, and it’s increasing our capacity to affect people’s lives.”
McMahon, who was appointed vice president for Research at MUSC in late 2020 and brought her own lab here from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), leads a team of researchers that set a funding record last year, a fact she celebrated. But that’s not what drives her.
“I think research funding follows great ideas. Funding follows discoveries. If we can stay focused on what we’re trying to understand, what we’re trying to discover, then we increase our competitive edge for the funding needed to support knowledge growth and the next big discoveries so we can ultimately improve patient care. Thinking about funding first, instead of focusing on biomedical science’s biggest problems, can often squash curiosity,” McMahon said.
“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be aware of the strategic research priorities of the National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies. That’s important. But so is following the science and letting curiosity guide us. And that’s where the sense of discovery and the passion for the work comes in. When there’s passion for the work and investigators are excited, impact happens. It’s easier to write a grant proposal about a new idea or some science that you’re passionate about or even about a new finding in the laboratory that you didn’t expect or predict.”
McMahon also emphasized the importance of collaboration. Last year, she created the Blue Sky Award in partnership with chief innovation officer Jesse Goodwin, Ph.D., to reward the big ideas of research teams working together across colleges.
“I really think that our next big discoveries in biomedical research will occur at the interface of disciplines. It’s important for us as researchers to know one another and to bump into one another getting coffee, in the hallway, in the elevator or walking across campus in addition to having events where we gather and have people share what they’re working on.”
During a recent event, researchers used an open mic format to describe their work, leading to six new collaborations. “I want to incentivize collaboration and provide opportunities for those interactions, those collisions, that help people to think big and solve big problems. To do transformational work, we need to expand MUSC’s connectedness and collaborative spirit to get us to the next level of discovery,” McMahon said.
“That simply doesn’t exist in many places like it does here. It’s our culture, and for that I’m grateful. It’s also important for us to align our clinical strengths with our research strengths more fully for better outcomes for patients, now and in the future.”
Fostering that kind of teamwork is key, McMahon said, whether it involves working on a project or looking at the bigger picture. “We just launched a strategic planning group for research across the enterprise. The group includes basic scientists and clinical researchers from all levels of faculty, brand-new assistant professors to seasoned tenured professors, coming together to think hard about what our strengths are and where we have opportunities.”
That type of collaborative spirit has served to strengthen an important area of focus for McMahon. “One question we are asking is where do we have emerging strengths that need investment so that we can go from basic, fundamental discovery all the way through clinical studies and into practice?”
One such area involves precision health, McMahon said. “The In Our DNA SC community health research project will analyze the DNA of 100,000 South Carolinians, providing a very rich data set that we will be able to use to try to understand how genes are impacting health. What’s exciting is that our clinicians are going to be able to use these data to gain insights into their patients’ health and their care.”
The data will also help basic and fundamental scientists, including McMahon. “We can take the variations in a gene and use our transgenic core to make a mouse model where we put that human gene mutation in a mouse so that we can understand disease process.”
That line of inquiry could lead to important findings, McMahon said. “We don’t always know when big discoveries are going to happen. Many research discoveries have been serendipitous throughout the last 100 years, such as the discoveries of penicillin and insulin. That’s why staying curious, not having blinders on and doing our best to stay unbiased as we approach science will help us to stumble on those discoveries that we didn’t expect but could have the power to change lives.”