Discovering a Career and More

From its beginning 165 years ago, The City University of New York has always had a dual mission: Deliver high-quality education — and serve the citizens of the city.


NAME: Mandë Holford
TITLE: Assistant professor of
chemical biology
FOCUS: “Science … takes a lot of initiative and drive, but all you need is an active, imaginative mind, which we’re all born with. All you have to do is nurture it.”

Today, CUNY’s 6,700 full-time faculty carry on this legacy, contributing in ways that truly transform our city, benefiting the lives of millions of New Yorkers every day. Many provide critical training for the city’s diverse workforce. They teach young scientists to explore new fields like photonics, biodiversity and nanotechnology; they train municipal employees in emergency preparedness for large-scale disasters; they create programs that teach health industry professionals how to detect early incidence of oral cancer and better care for people with developmental disabilities.

In the following months, you’ll find the compelling stories of such CUNY faculty — just a few of the remarkable men and women whose service reflects the unique, historic bond between the University and its city.

As a student at Brooklyn Tech in the early 1990s, Mandë Holford had her sights set on attending a private university that would eventually lead to a career in international law. But as the third of five children, her two older siblings already going to private colleges, she disappointedly decided to attend York College, near home.

“But it turned out to be something positive: I met Larry Johnson,” she said. Chemistry professor Lawrence Johnson brought Holford into his lab. And not only was he “an excellent mentor,” Holford said, she made an unexpected discovery: The life of a researcher suited her.

So the sting of disappointment was soon transformed into a passion for scientific research — and, in turn, for mentoring other young scientists. “I want to get the word out that science is rewarding,” said Holford, now an assistant professor of chemical biology at Hunter College: “… all you need is an active, imaginative mind, which we’re all born with. All you have to do is nurture it.”

After graduating from York in 1997 with a B.S. in mathematics and chemistry, Holford earned a Ph.D. at Rockefeller University, then accepted a fellowship awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to learn how scientific research can benefit other areas such as public policy, then obtained a National Science Foundation fellowship to conduct postdoctoral studies including in Paris and Berlin.

At Rockefeller, Holford studied cancer-related proteins. After an internship at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), she fell in love with the natural sciences. Fusing her knowledge of chemistry and biodiversity, she has focused her research on seemingly esoteric sea creatures. “The goal is to try to find stories from nature that can help humans,” Holford said. “Take these snails that eat fish. How is that possible? It turns out the venom is like a cluster bomb; it hits all the organs of the prey and shuts down their functions.”

Holford and other scientists have been studying the snails to learn how to develop therapeutic cures from substances found in nature. In a number of studies, a peptide neurotoxin derived from a cone snail species, was found effective in providing relief from chronic pain in HIV and cancer patients. Now Holford is doing more targeted searches.

In 2008, she returned to CUNY, first reuniting with her York colleague, Larry Johnson, while also taking a dual appointment as a research associate in the AMNH invertebrate zoology division. Three years later, she joined Hunter’s chemistry department. Her research has won awards including an NSF CAREER award.

Holford remains active in the AMNH after-school Science Research Mentoring Program, which places about 200 students with scientist-mentors in fields such as astrophysics, earth science and conservation biology.

In particular, Holford is committed to getting women into the lab.

On Feb. 25, on a panel with other CUNY scientists, Holford testified at a City Council higher education hearing on the subject of “Recruiting and Retaining Women into the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Fields.” Also testifying were Vice Chancellor for Research Gillian Small, CCNY Professor of Biomedical Engineering Maribel Vazquez, and Tetiana Nosach, a Ph.D. candidate in physics at the Graduate Center.

Through an NSF grant, Holford has created a two-year program called RAISE-W (Resource Assisted Initiatives in Science Empowerment for Women). The initiative provides faculty mentors on individual research projects, with coaching sessions to teach important “soft skills,” such as time management. Holford points out that long-term success in science, like business, often requires women to juggle many personal and professional tasks.

Such initiatives also support the University’s broader mission of bringing high-quality science education to underrepresented populations. And promoting science is essential to “building an intelligent citizenry in the city,” she added. “We need to help people learn about something else …. We want to spark their imagination.”