Senior Associate Dean for Biomedical Sciences
Professor, Department of Cell & Developmental Biology Vanderbilt University Medical Center
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
For Susan Wente, Aristotle’s observation is a hypothesis that has proven true. Wearing many hats — researcher, educator, administrator, mentor, wife and mother — each role adds to the richness of her busy, happy life.
Wente said along the way, her parents, professors and mentors encouraged her to be open to possibilities. “I think that’s when you take leaps forward in your own development … when you take risks,” she noted.
Growing up in a small Iowa town, Wente didn’t set out to become a biomedical researcher. Having won a scholarship to the University of Iowa, wise advisors recognized Wente’s potential and guided her to a home in biochemistry. A problem-solver by nature, her undergraduate laboratory experience seeded her passion for research.
Leaving the familiar Midwest for graduate school at Berkeley, Wente found not all the best discoveries happen in the lab. California is where she met fellow grad student, Chris Hardy, a geneticist who would become her husband.
Following fellowships at Memorial Sloan Kettering and at Rockefeller in the lab of Nobel Prize laureate Günter Blobel, she launched her independent research career at Washington University in St. Louis. Nine years later, Vanderbilt came calling.
“My administrative leadership in biomedical sciences started with very early opportunities to lead graduate and physician scientist training programs,” Wente noted. “My recent career path has been most greatly influenced by Vanderbilt leaders, particularly Lee Limbird and Jeff Balser,” she continued.
“Lee played a major role in recruiting me as a department chair and persuaded me that Vanderbilt was the right place at the right time for this career step,” she said of Limbird, now a dean at Fisk. “Jeff gave me the opportunity to move into my current position and has entrusted me with many opportunities to launch new initiatives and grow further as a leader,” she added of Balser, dean of Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine.
In her various roles, Wente oversees the basic biomedical graduate and post-doctoral education for more than 1,000 trainees. She also is responsible for Vanderbilt’s strategic vision and infrastructure to support basic science research, working with Vanderbilt’s chairs and center directors to recruit and retain the best and brightest faculty.
“There are so many innovative ideas and bright minds addressing mysteries in biomedical sciences. Basic discovery research is the foundation for future cures and disease prevention — from cancer to diabetes to Alzheimer’s,” she said.
“I am passionate about ensuring we continue to make discoveries while training the next generation of scientists and physicians. My biggest challenge is finding the resources to support this tremendous creativity.” She added funding has become increasingly constrained at a time when technology and knowledge have positioned researchers to make major breakthroughs.
In her own lab, the research is focused on understanding communication pathways within cells between the nucleus and cytoplasm. While thrilled when her team makes discoveries revealing insights into biology and medicine, Wente said this is only one small piece of the puzzle.
“I truly love the even greater impact that results from my helping all those engaged in research and teaching,” she said. “Every day I’m living vicariously from others succeeding and discovering the unknown.”
That thrill extends to her personal life where Wente and Hardy cheer on their daughters, both skilled volleyball players — Allison, a freshman at Smith College, and Lindsay, a freshman at the University School of Nashville.
The entire family enjoys experimenting with cooking and new recipes. “When you’re a scientist cooking, it’s a lot like working in a lab … but you can eat your failures instead of not publishing them,” Wente said with a laugh. She added the family’s passion for travel dovetails neatly with the four foodies always eager to try out new tastes in any part of the world.
A love of discovery is a common theme in all facets of Wente’s life. “I always look for new challenges, and I like to attack problems by building partnerships,” she concluded.