Killer Snail Chemist and Professor at Hunter College

Killer Snail Chemist and Professor at Hunter College


What sort of problems do you find the most interesting to solve?

In science I don’t think we solve problems necessarily, I think we discover what the laws of nature are and that means finding the unknown. I like to find things that are novel and figure out how they work. Which is a leap of faith into ignorance that more and more requires an interdisciplinary approach to science.

No one subject - chemistry, biology, physics, math - can truly explain how cells work, or how stars are formed. Problems that require a combination of expertise interest me because it means you’re going to find out things that are more applicable as they are not coming from a siloed view.


Please tell me about your research.

I’m a venom scientist. I study the evolution of venom in predatory marine snails and use this as a roadmap to identify venom compounds that can be used to manipulate cell signals involved in disorders like pain and cancer. I was recently described as a “Killer Snail Chemist,” which I think is a succinct and accurate description as it combines the biological and chemical components of my research.

My killer snails, which are predatory marine snails, produce a venom arsenal similar to snakes and scorpions, which they use to feed on fish, worms, and other snails. These snail venoms can also kill humans, if you’re an unlucky diver or snorkeler. But in a twist of nature, this same venom can also be used as a cure if we can isolate and characterize the function of the compounds in the venom arsenal. Venom compounds make great therapeutic drugs because they are fast acting, potent, and specific – all the things you want a drug to be. 


 In my research we are looking for new drugs for treating pain and cancer from the venom of killer snails. In fact, the first snail drug is already on the market and is being used to treat chronic pain in HIV and cancer patients. It’s called Prialt and comes from the snail Conus magus. So the sea feeds us with seafood, helps us breathe by producing oxygen from phytoplankton and now we’ve learned the seas can also help cure us with new medicines.


What is the potential impact on humanity?

The impacts of the research being done in my group would get us closer to explaining the biodiversity of venomous animals we have on our planet and how these animals can help us find new cures for diseases and disorders. We are trying to explain how venom evolved over time in terebrid killer snails and apply this to venom evolution in other species to explain why we find a similar ingredients list of compounds in the venoms of snakes, spiders, sea anemones, and other venomous creatures. The compounds we find in terebrid venoms can be used as triggers for manipulating cell function such as turning a signal off or on. Typically turning signals off is how we prevent disorders like pain signals or tumor cells from spreading.


Why did you decide to unite female scientists at Hunter?

We started the Women in Science at Hunter, or WISH, initiative to have collective impact and get our voices heard. We have an awesome group of exceptional scientists at Hunter and they aren’t being recognized. Our scientists are leading their fields, like radiochemist Lynn Francesconi, cancer biologist Jill Bargonetti, Diana Reiss, who’s dolphin research is teaching us a about recognition and vocalization, and Jayne Raper, who studies trypanosomes to make disease resistant cattle. These are badass women and Hunter has a history of badass women scientists like Maria Tomasz, Jeannette Brown, and Rose K. Rose.

Hunter’s produced two Nobel Prize winners, Roslyn Yalow and Gertrude Elion. The only institution to have two female Nobel Prize winners. We’re doing amazing things and the world needs to know it. Hunter was founded as a women’s only institution and was a haven for bright, immigrant, and economically challenged women. We let men in now, but Hunter’s still a top-notch institution for women and the female scientists are proving that. The aim of WISH is to find private donors who want to provide support for named laboratories, undergraduate and graduate women in science fellowships, and travel awards.


Are we underrepresented? If so, what’s your personal experience or understanding of why?

I’m a woman of color and a scientist in chemical marine biology and drug discovery. I’m a bit of a unicorn. I don’t want to be a unicorn. I want to be a racehorse. Unicorns are rare, racehorses are plentiful and the best ones win. I want a field of women of color scientist racehorses running wild and competing with everyone else. How we get there isn’t easy, but I think it starts with a cultural change of perception. Specifically the perception of who can do want.

I don’t want to be a unicorn. I want to be a racehorse. Unicorns are rare, racehorses are plentiful and the best ones win.  

What is one or a few books you’ve read that you’d recommend to your closest friends?

I love the printed word. Books are amazing. I have three faves in no particular order: The Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, and The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. Also anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Zadie Smith, or Isabel Allende.


Is there a book you’ve read that you’d recommend universally (ie. to everyone you meet)?

Any of the books I’d recommend to my friends and the Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis.


What’s your favorite film from the last year?

Black Panther. And not for the obvious reason in that it’s about a black superhero, which I think is an important achievement in changing cultural perceptions about black men, but it’s the women in the movie that moved me. They were strong, independent, emotional, nurturing, and fearless.

As a scientist, Shuri, the Black Panther’s littler sister who’s also his science and technology guru, stole the movie. She’s the Q to his Bond and she’s killer! She’s the face of women in science that I show my students and use in my talks. Role models are aspirational and help us put a name to the things we want to do and achieve. Shuri is naming a lot of things for women and girls of color and hopefully for all races.


Do you collect any art objects or literature? 

I collect old science equipment. I started doing so in graduate school at The Rockefeller University. Scientists at Rockefeller have done phenomenal things to advance science and the instruments they used to do so were still around in old labs and were going to be thrown away. I thought that was loosing scientific history, so I started bringing them to my apartment. When I left Rockefeller I had a mini museum of science equipment, which my brothers and boyfriend wanted nothing to do with the day I moved. I bribed them with their vice of choice to get them to move my instruments. Now my lab, office, and home have these instruments and more I’ve collected over the years. Tools are manifestations for how we get things done and having these instruments around me makes me feel like I’m getting things done.


What personal belief do you hold that’s the most empowering?

Anything is possible and everything can be negotiated.


Do you have a purpose or specific passion that you’re dedicated to?

Changing how science is taught. We’re not doing a good job of teaching science in schools and what we’ve learned is it’s not what we teach but how we teach that’s important. Together with my friends Jessica Ochoa Hendrix and Lindsay Portnoy we started a learning games company, Killer Snails. Our mottos are “games down to a science” and “learning through mechanics.” Games have been shown to be a powerful medium for learning and encouraging behavior change.

We’re a generation of gamers  -tabletop, digital, VR, AR - and we need to meet our students where they are. Our games use extreme creatures in nature to convey science concepts. Our secret sauce is supporting teacher engagement and real time assessment of student learning during game play. Our first game, Assassins of the Sea reflects my lab’s research with Killer Snails, hence the name of our company. I was very proud when Assassins of the Sea was considered for a MENSA and was awarded Best TableTop Game in 2016 by Playcrafters.  Our second game BiomeBuilder also won awards and we’re producing our first VR experience, BioDive. I know we can make a difference in how science is taught and ignite generations of students to the wonders of discovery and innovation.


The End 


Mande is wearing Roucha

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     Navy Brushed Wool Wide Leg Pants
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On location in Mande's Lab and Surrounding Terrace
Photography by Charlie Schuck
Hair by Ezio Diaferia
No makeup
Styling and Interview by me (Jill)