Professor Marilee Benore receives honor from American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

March 27, 2023

Biochemistry Professor Marilee Benore is among 20 scientists who’ve made outstanding contributions to the field. She's named along with faculty from institutions that include U-M Medical School, Yale and Rutgers.

Photo of Professor Marilee Benore holding a 3D model of a protein structure. Photo/Sarah Tuxbury
Photo of Professor Marilee Benore holding a 3D model of a protein structure. Photo/Sarah Tuxbury

In Biochemistry Professor Marilee Benore’s office, there are custom printed 3D models of protein structures and copper pipes shaped and painted to look like DNA strands. Near these science sculptures, there are several whimsical pictures featuring the characters of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

It seems like juxtaposition, but Benore says what they represent complements each other.

“Things are not always as they seem. When you look at me, you don’t see chromosomes, genes and proteins. But they are all there,” she said. “You can’t see anything in biochemistry with a naked eye. You have to believe it and be open to learning. That’s where these models come in. They introduce us to this world that’s under the surface.”

Listening to Benore talk with students about biochemistry substances and processes, it’s obvious that she values labs, practice-based learning, research work and those 3D models.

As she snaps a vitamin into an alpha ribbon niche on the protein model, Benore says many of her students go into medicine. She wants them to understand how things work so they can pass information along to others.

“I tell them, ‘Let’s pretend you are a physician and you have to tell a parent about a genetic disease. I want you to show me where the mutation might be on the chromosome and explain it to me,” she says. “When you are looking someone in the eyes and giving them news about something they cannot see, you need to be more than a doctor. You need to be a trusted source and educator.”

Benore has taught at UM-Dearborn since 1989, and she explores different ways to educate her students. That has built trust. Just a few examples, among many: Benore mentors scores of students in her lab, and she is organizing a study abroad experience to Italy for students to learn from an ancient medicinal garden, and she created custom take-home lab kits for students during the pandemic.

For her work, Benore was named a 2023 Fellow by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The honorific program recognizes 20 scientists annually who’ve made outstanding contributions to the field through their research, teaching, mentoring or other forms of service. She was named along with faculty from institutions that include U-M Medical School, Yale, UC-Berkley and Rutgers.

“Because biochemistry is considered challenging to teach, biochem educators have ways — like the ASBMB — to collaborate with leaders in the field and make sure that our lessons remain relevant and student-centered,” said Benore, who’s been a member of the society  for 20-plus years. “A recognition like this means my work is appreciated, has value and it opens doors.”

Benore said the ASBMB supports innovative science education and promotes the diversity of individuals entering the scientific workforce — something she’s passionate about.

As a young chemical lab researcher in industry, Benore experienced harassment and discrimination from male colleagues. And when she graduated with an advanced degree in chemistry at the University of Delaware, she was in a class with only four females. “In my journey, I’ve learned that opportunity doesn't exist for everyone. I wanted to ensure that girls and women had access to STEM careers.”

Before Benore was a professor, she was a girls’ basketball coach, a feminist newsletter editor and a domestic violence shelter advocate. As a professor, Benore organized and ran a Girl Scouts STEM summer camp, advised the UM-Dearborn chapter of Women in Leadership and Learning and team-taught with colleagues in the Women and Gender Studies program.

 Students use copper alembic stills in Benore's biochem lab.
Students use copper alembic stills in Benore's biochem lab.

Benore said female representation in biochemistry has made huge strides in the 30-plus years since she entered the field (2022 data shows that 44% of U.S. biochemists are women). But she says there are still gaps in representation that need to be addressed, specifically for people of color. Looking at 2022 biochemist demographics, 9.9% identify as Hispanic/Latinx and 6.6% identify as Black.

“Everyone likes to talk about DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and I’m glad we do. But there needs to be more action, more movement,” said Benore, who teaches a biology-oriented diversity in healthcare course at UM-Dearborn. “And this lack of diversity goes beyond biochemist professionals. It’s in our drug discovery process and in healthcare policies too.”

With ASBMB colleagues, Benore helps run workshops that focus on anti-racism practices in biochem labs and courses, gives advice during panels on how to respond to harassment, shares practices that help eliminate bias from hiring (like screening out applicant names and locations), and conducts research reviews to support biochem researchers. On campus, Benore is part of the team that  landed a $1.44M National Science Foundation grant to start the STEM Scholars program, which is in its first year. The program tailors impactful education practices — like research, cohorts and professional development — to connect underserved and underrepresented populations to STEM futures.

Benore is at a point in her career where she could retire. But she’s not ready for that yet. She says there’s still work to do.

In her office, Benore shows a student how to set up a copper alembic still. She uses a computer program for a colleague to see how a prescription drug they are taking impacts complex molecules in the body. Still using visuals to explain the unseeable, Benore gestures to her Alice in Wonderland art and back to the biochemistry papers and books around the room.

“We are all a little mad around here,” she says with a smile. “But there is a method in this madness. We, as faculty, want our students to learn about how things affect them, even if it’s something that can’t be seen. Because once you know it’s there, you can learn about the impact that it has. Awareness is always a good first step.”

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.