Faculty Profile: Stephanie Ceman

Stephanie Ceman knew when she was in sixth grade that she wanted to go to college. Her parents, on the other hand, were not so sure.

"My parents really resisted. They were afraid I'd turn into a hippie," she says. Ceman's goal was not to become a hippie, but rather to become a doctor. It seemed the most logical career path at the time to Ceman, who enjoyed math and biology. "I liked knowing about the way things work," says Ceman, who built a model of the heart out of dough for a high-school biology class. "I was interested in all these chambers and how blood would come in one chamber and would go to the next one and back to the lungs."

the way things work

Stephanie Ceman knew when she was in sixth grade that she wanted to go to college. Her parents, on the other hand, were not so sure.

“My parents really resisted. They were afraid I’d turn into a hippie,” she says.
Ceman’s goal was not to become a hippie, but rather to become a doctor. It seemed the most logical career path at the time to Ceman, who enjoyed math and biology.

“I liked knowing about the way things work,” says Ceman, who built a model of the heart out of dough for a high-school biology class. “I was interested in all these chambers and how blood would come in one chamber and would go to the next one and back to the lungs.”

dr. gillette's weekly lab meeting

When her parents did ultimately relent about sending Ceman to college, they did so on the condition that she stay in state, which led Ceman to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, two hours away from the family farm. “I was very, very focused,” says Ceman, of college. “I viewed college as this privilege, because my parents were paying for it and because I had to make something of myself and go to med school.”

Ceman went to the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine straight after college. In one of those forks in the road of life, the summer after her first year of medical school, Ceman found work in Robert DeMars’ laboratory at the University of Wisconsin.

“It was a human genetics lab and I loved it,” says Ceman. “I remember knowing, ‘this is what I really, really want to do.’ We were working on the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which is important is because it drives your whole immune system. I thought the MHC was the coolest thing in the world.”

Switching from medical school to research in itself wasn’t difficult; Ceman loved research, but the finances were tricky. “I had acquired this huge debt and I wasn’t even going to be a doctor and be able to pay it back,” she says. “Still, it turned out okay, $17,000 later.”

Meanwhile, Ceman was having a great experience in DeMars’ lab.

“He was a fantastic mentor,” says Ceman. “I try to model my own lab after our interactions. If something happens in lab and I’m not sure how to deal with it, I’ll think, ‘What would Bob do?’ He understood how to interact with students and was very good at making you become the best scientist you could be.”

After earning her doctorate, Ceman did two post-docs. First, she went to the University of Chicago where she worked on the biochemistry of the immune system. Ceman then moved to Emory University in Atlanta, where she did a post-doc in a lab using a human genetics approach.

“I had become interested in Fragile X syndrome,” she says. “When one gene is absent you get mental retardation, so I was thinking, if you could just understand what that one gene did, you could understand higher cognitive function. That was kind of naïve I realize now, but that was my motivator.”

To this day, there is much about Fragile X research that Ceman finds compelling. Harking back to her pre-med days, Ceman likes that there is a strong clinical application to her research. Many groups funding Fragile X research are closely tied with family/patient advocacy and Ceman enjoys interacting with the families.

“I like the idea of knowing the complete disorder,” says Ceman. “There are ways to interact with the families (at some meetings there is a research track and a family track) and that has really made it very rich. I look forward to taking my students to one of these family meetings in St. Louis this year.”

Ceman became a research assistant professor at Emory and then joined the University of Illinois faculty in 2003. Although these are tough times for young investigators because there are more and more labs competing for fewer research dollars, Ceman is thriving.

It helps that Ceman has always loved to write and that she has discovered a passion for teaching.

“I love writing grants,” she says. “It’s fun. It gets you to learn everything about a particular question.”

In addition to helping her write grants, Ceman’s love of writing and of telling a story, also has influenced her teaching, particularly her course on medical genetics.

“I love telling a story, which is where the teaching—has really been a pleasure. Because I read about cancer or schizophrenia and then in the classroom I tell the story.

 “Plus, I identify with the medical students,” adds Ceman. “I understand being smart, interested in biology, wanting to help people. I know exactly what they’re going through so it’s kind of fun to midwife that.”

Neither doctor nor hippie, Ceman has instead found a way to combine her love of biology, her curiosity about the way things work, and her love of writing in a way she could not have envisioned, back when she built her first heart.

September 01, 2007 All News