Marion Sewer (1972-2016) was a pharmacologist and Professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD)’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences known for her research on steroid hormone biogenesis and her commitment to increasing diversity in science. She died unexpectedly at the age of 43 from a pulmonary embolism and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) established an award in her memory: the Marion B. Sewer Distinguished Scholarship for Undergraduates provides up to $2000 to help cover tuition costs of U.S. undergraduate biochemistry and molecular biology students committed to increasing diversity in science. This year’s deadline to apply is June 1: 

picture of Marion Sewer is from the ASBMB website, but I don’t know the original source

The scholarship was actually how I learned about Dr. Sewer, but I’d wished I’d known more about her before. When I went to look her up a couple of years ago, I saw she didn’t have a Wikipedia page, so I made one and here is some of what I learned when making it. 

Marion Sewer was born and raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She studied biochemistry at Spelman College in Atlanta, where she participated in research through the NIH’s Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. She went on to earn a PhD in pharmacology from Emory University followed by postdoctoral studies at Vanderbilt University, supported by prestigious fellowships: a predoctoral fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a UNCF/Merck Postdoctoral Scholarship.

She joined the faculty of the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2002 and received tenure in 2008 before moving to UCSD in 2009, where she rose to the rank of full professor in 2015. In addition to teaching pharmacology, she led a lab researching how lipid metabolism is regulated and how this affects cells. She performed extensive research on cytochrome P450, a family of enzymes involved in converting cholesterol into steroid hormones (a type of molecular messengers), and she discovered a novel role for nuclear lipids in regulating steroid hormone production.

In addition to being world-renowned for her lipid research, she is remembered as a tireless advocate for underrepresented minorities. She served as Deputy Chair for the ASBMB’s Minority Affairs Committee (MAC), co-founding and helping lead grant writing workshops and a mentorship program to help advance the careers of underrepresented minority scientists. She also served as associate director at UCSD’s Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA) program, which supports underrepresented minority postdoctoral fellows.

She also provided great words of wisdom, such as this: “I have found that biomedical research, particularly in academia, can be isolating, and at times fraught with setbacks and disappointment. In spite of these adversities I think the most important thing that I’ve learned is to not let speed bumps deter you from your goals and to not be afraid to take detours off a set path if these changes move you closer a personally satisfying career.”

Marion Sewer was a colleague of IUBMB president-elect Dr. Alexandra Newton, and Newton remembers her fondly, telling me, “Dr Sewer was a passionate and devoted mentor who was a strong advocate for students.  It was a privilege to serve on numerous student committees with Dr. Sewer – her calm, rational, and gentle guidance of students at their committee meetings was a model for all PIs.”

She was also an inspiration and mentor for one of my favorite scientists, Dr. Namandje Bumpus, who, in 2020 was named Director of the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences at Johns Hopkins. This made her the first Black woman to become a department director at Hopkins Medicine and the ONLY Black woman chairing a pharmacology department at any medical school – in the entire United States. 

In an interview with “The Advocate,” Bumpus had this to say about Sewer: “She was someone who was a really great colleague, a really great scientist and someone who also, in a rare way, really cared about people, service, equity and inclusion in science. She really inspired me and helped me to get my first National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant by reviewing it for me several times. She was more senior and experienced, and I think a lot of us have that same story where she helped us get started because she was so generous with her time, so it was definitely a really big loss.”  

As for the scholarship, in past years they’ve only given out 5 of them, but this year they’re giving out 10 because their funding was doubled from a donation by New England Biolabs (NEB), that company that sells more restriction enzymes than you knew existed! 

and the 2020 recipients here: 

You can learn more about the 2019 recipients here:  

Good luck everyone who applies and please remember the person who the scholarship is named after! Marion Sewer – a phenomenal person who was taken from us much too soon.

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