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Spotlight on Commerce: Samantha Maragh, Ph.D., Leader of the Genome Editing Program, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Guest blog post by Samantha Maragh, Ph.D., Leader of the Genome Editing Program, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

I grew up in the “melting pot U.S.A,” otherwise known as Howard County, Maryland. Even in this melting pot, I was different. I am of mixed ethnicity. My mom is Afro-Caribbean and my dad is East Indian. Both parents were born and raised in Jamaica and came to the U.S. in 1981. As a first-generation natural born American citizen born to Jamaican immigrant parents, I discovered my love of biomedicine as early as elementary school. In the Howard County Public School System, I was exposed to a variety of sciences and I found biology really spoke to my puzzle-loving, problem-solving mind.

After high school, I continued my path toward a career in science at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland and graduated with a B.S. in biology, with a concentration in cellular and molecular biology, and a minor in chemistry. Biology is the study of life, so as a field it encompasses a large number of subspecialties. During my time at Loyola, I found my biology sweet spot in genetics and molecular biology, and I have pursued that field from that time forward.

After completing my B.S., I got a job in the Federal Government. I started my journey as a contractor biological technician at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standard and Technology (NIST). I knew my scientific interests were in applying genetics to challenges relating to human health. At NIST, I was given the opportunity to support a collaboration between NIST and the National Cancer Institute on the early detection of cancer biomarkers. Four months into my time working at NIST, I started a master’s degree program at night. For two and a half years, I worked full time at NIST and attended classes two or three nights a week for up to three hours a night. At the end, I received a M.S. degree in biotechnology, with a specialization in molecular targets and drug discovery, from Johns Hopkins University.

Early into my time pursuing my master’s degree, to my surprise, I was offered a civil service job as a biological technician. I gladly accepted this opportunity and began what has been 14 years and nine months of federal service at NIST.

While I was serving as a NIST technician and nearing the completion of my M.S. degree, former NIST director Willie May (and then-director of the NIST Material Measurement Laboratory, or MML) and former MML director Laurie Locascio (then my division chief) encouraged me to obtain a doctorate and bring back what I learned to further NIST in the biosciences. I’m truly grateful for the opportunity and the support Willie and Laurie gave me and their encouragement to pursue my Ph.D. With persistent encouragement and support from other NIST leadership, I went to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine while still being a full-time NIST employee. I worked in the Hopkins labs and in the process I obtained a Ph.D. in human genetics and molecular biology.

While pursuing my Ph.D., I became exposed to the budding revolution that is CRISPR/Cas and other genome editing technologies. After completing my Ph.D., I returned to NIST full-time in 2014 and brought with me an enthusiasm for this new, exciting field of genome editing. It was no easy feat to convince colleagues that a technology almost nobody had heard of at that time would warrant its own program. But,  I built a network of key players in the field and made the case for the important role of NIST in this growing field.

Now I lead the Genome Editing Program that I started at NIST in 2016. Genome editing systems (e.g., CRISPR/Cas9 and Zinc Finger Nucleases) generate permanent DNA sequence changes in live cells by the generation then repair of DNA strand breaks at target DNA sequences.  Genome editing technologies are being actively pursued globally by government, academic, and private sectors to transform medicine and bioscience to enable previously impossible advances in areas such as gene therapy, synthetic biology, novel antimicrobial and antivirals, biomanufacturing, agriculture and food production. This technology space has already made an impact on science, and in 2020 the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to two female scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna "for the development of a method for genome editing.”  In my role, I lead a team of NIST scientists and have a wide range of collaborations with other government agencies, nonprofits, academics and industry. We work together to develop the measurements and standards needed to increase confidence in utilizing genome editing technologies in research and commercial products. The primary collaborative activity I lead is the NIST Genome Editing Consortium, a public-private partnership for standards development. In addition to these duties, I also serve as a U.S. expert on nucleic acids measurements to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Technical Committee on Biotechnology.

In my time leading the NIST Genome Editing Program, I’ve received a few honors. I was nominated and selected through a competitive process to speak at the National Academy of Engineering 2019 U.S. Frontiers of Engineering Symposium (US FOE). Also in 2019, I was honored as the State of Maryland Non-Academic Outstanding Young Scientist of the year. You can read more about my work at this blog post for NIST’s Taking Measure blog. https://www.nist.gov/blogs/taking-measure/rewritten-our-dna-measurements-genome-editing   

I am now a woman in STEM, but I was once a child and teen, interested in STEM.  In those early days I was often asked if I was ‘sure about science’ since to those around me science was such an uncommon path and it was unclear how I could be successful.  It’s interesting to note that even now at scientific conferences I’m often assumed to be the student, the assistant or the spokesperson.  It can be surprising to people, when they realize that I am actually the program leader, and this regularly stimulates conversations about how this came to be and the biases, challenges, and opportunities for women to be leaders in STEM. 

But “scientist” is only one part of who I am and what I hold dear. I can also be defined by faith, family, fun and food.

  • Faith: I am a member of Higher Ground International Church of Catonsville, Maryland, and there I exercise my passion for God and singing as the praise and worship as well as the music ministry leader. As a Christian, my belief in Jesus Christ guides the core of who I am.
  • Family: I hold dear those I call family, cherishing those closest to me for how they enrich my life and try to enrich theirs in return.
  • Fun: I enjoy laughter-being in as well as helping to create the moments in life that not only bring a smile to your face but also to your heart.
  • Food: I love to cook as well as seek out new and varying cuisines to taste the diversity of the spice of life.

To the youth who may be interested in a career with the federal government, from my experience, being an effective civil servant is possible by understanding what you’re passionate about and matching that with where the government needs that talent.

Understand the value of using your talents toward the national good; be committed to fulfilling duties set before you with integrity; and know you represent more than yourself as a civil servant.

Start early in reaching out to current federal employees to talk about your interests and learn where there might be opportunities. I’d also encourage youth to stay balanced as a person.

To paraphrase my Ph.D. thesis adviser: “Be present wherever you are. When you are at work, be committed and the best you can be. When you are outside of work, maybe at home or with friends, be present and the best you can be there as well.”

Editorial Note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting the contributions of Department of Commerce African Americans during Black History Month.