Terra Sigillata

i-3811bc59b498dbc7d93ff031b522bc25-Marcy Speer.jpgWhen Duke genetics researcher Dr Marcy C Speer died of breast cancer last August at age 47, a huge void was left in the community of her friends, her university, and her field. As Director of the Center for Human Genetics at Duke University Medical Center, Dr Speer was tremendously successful as a scientist, collaborator, and role model. Among her many accomplishments and recognitions was her appointment and service to NIH’s Genetics of Health and Human Disease study section.

NIH’s Center for Scientific Review, or CSR, is the entity charged with all aspects of the peer-review of some 80,000 research proposals sent to the agency each year. To accomplish this task, NIH recruits thousands of US and international scientists to serve as peer-reviewers on over 110 panels called study sections. Each study section is chartered to review applications in a relatively well-defined scientific discipline and sub-area. Being selected to serve on study section is an honor but it also takes a tremendous effort above and beyond one’s normal duties. While the workload various among panels and depends on the number of applications assigned to you, serving on study section usually means that your family sees very little of you for three weeks, three times a year – and that is even before the two days you spend on the panel in the DC area (or now at selected West Coast locations).

i-b22fab9b80eb58729716a2532daa2b03-CSR Speer.jpgSpeer’s dedication was remarkable in that she served on 30 NIH study sections and 20 other panels over the last 10 years and continued to serve as she received treatments for her breast cancer. Speer even extended her term on study section to make up for the meetings she invariably had to miss. According to this one-page PDF NIH statement on Speer’s contributions to NIH:

When her cancer returned and treatments suddenly proved no match for the disease, Marcy worried about the applications she had to turn back right before an NHGRI review meeting. Two weeks later, she died on August 4 at the Duke Hospital after a two-year battle with breast cancer.

Speer’s passion and “unwavering support for NIH peer review” has now been recognized by NIH by the naming in her honor a new award to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of outstanding NIH grant reviewers, the Marcy Speer Outstanding CSR Reviewer Award Program.

The goal of the program is:

To highlight and honor the external scientists who make untold sacrifices serving on CSR peer review groups so the National Institutes of Health can find the best applications and ultimately treat/cure and prevent disease.

The criterion for nomination are as follows:

CSR is seeking to honor individuals who have excelled in their service as a peer reviewer by one or more of the following ways:

1. Going above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that NIH grant applications receive fair and expert reviews

2. Having a significant impact on the quality of the peer review process through an abiding commitment to peer review

3. Educating and inspiring colleagues in the scientific community to do their part in serving on CSR review groups.

4. Greatly enhancing peer review by setting an example of excellence, inspiring fellow reviewers, or nurturing new reviewers

A very fitting tribute to a remarkable person and scientist.

Yet this is only one facet of Marcy Speer’s scientific and personal life. Speer was the first graduate student of Dr Margaret Pericak-Vance, now at the University of Miami, who crafted a moving obituary of her friend and colleague in Nature Genetics.

Speer’s most important scientific contributions were in the genetic characterization of neurological disorders. Her laboratory cloned two muscular-dystrophy genes, leading to the availability of diagnostic testing for both. Respected and admired by her colleagues, Speer was an international leader in research to discover the genetic and environmental causes of childhood neurological birth defects, such as neural tube defects and Chiari malformation. . .

. . .There are many reasons to remember Marcy and the contributions that she made to human genetics. Although her time was much too short, her impact on her chosen field was immense. However, I choose to remember Marcy as wife, mother and friend and for the role she played in the lives of all of us who knew and loved her; that is irreplaceable.

Indeed, while we can never replace such valued members of our community, we can at least look to them for inspiration.


  1. #1 DrugMonkey
    January 25, 2008

    Nice one Abel. I’d seen the request for nominees but hadn’t read up on who was being honored with the award title.

  2. #2 Abel Pharmboy
    January 25, 2008

    Thanks, DM – I saw this was made public in the most recent CSR Peer Review Notes and thought that Marcy’s story was most worthy of expanding upon.

  3. #3 writedit
    January 27, 2008

    This is fabulous, Abel. Thank you so much for taking the time to pull this together. A shame she is not with us to appreciate your thoughtful & tasteful post … and I wonder how many other unsung heroes will go unsung until they are remembered in remembrances rather than honored in a timely fashion by their peers. Cheers to all of you out there who fall in this category. Please do Marcy proud!

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