A background in science and a Cornell Ph.D. help Susan Mayne ’87 excel at FDA
Susan Mayne ’87 knows the importance of getting the puzzle pieces to fit together. Take, for instance, a staff of nearly 1,000 employees and a budget of $300 million. Then throw in programs and policies responsible for nothing less than the safety, healthfulness and labeling of the majority of the U.S.’s imported and domestic food supply.
As the director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), Mayne’s job is a big one: to lock those pieces together.
But Mayne did not start out working on policy. First and foremost, she is a scientist. She came to Cornell as a Ph.D. student with a background in chemistry and biochemistry and an interest in health promotion and disease prevention. At Cornell, she concentrated on nutritional biochemistry, “which was the way to marry my hard science background with my passion for food nutrition and disease prevention,” she said.
Mayne took a wide range of classes and minored in toxicology, enabling her to better understand the toxins in food, an area central to FDA’s work. Her time at Cornell also sparked a new interest – epidemiology – and she decided to pursue further training. After graduating from Cornell, Mayne set off for Yale and a one-year fellowship to study epidemiology and biostatistics.
One year at Yale turned into introducing and teaching a course on nutrition and disease prevention, which turned into a tenure-track position in the School of Public Health, which turned into 27 years on the faculty, teaching, doing research and leading research teams. She eventually took the chair role of the Department of Chronic Disease Epidemiology.
Mayne says her time at Yale “was an opportunity to bring together all the things I was interested in, which were human research, hard science, health promotion, disease prevention and toxicology.”
The FDA approached Mayne in 2014, and offered her the opportunity to lead CFSAN. As she considered the move, Mayne says that one of the things that attracted her to the FDA was “getting to work across the enormous breadth of ongoing research that’s really relevant to FDA’s overall mission.” She was quickly convinced that working for the FDA was an “amazing opportunity to apply all of [her previous] work in a policy setting.”
In her current role, she works to shape policies that people can understand and follow. A big part of that work is getting information from stakeholders. She and her team listen to the priorities and wishes of consumer groups, public health and health professional groups, industry and Congress – to name just a few. Then, that information is put through “the filter of being a science-based public health regulatory agency.” She says her team is always working to be “cognizant of the impacts of the policy and regulatory decisions we are making on various stakeholder groups and take that into account as we are making decisions.”
Mayne’s current work takes her back to her hard science background and collaborative research related to population genomics. CFSAN scientists are using scientific techniques, including next generation sequencing that Mayne remembers from her research days to look at pathogen genomics and study food contamination situations such as salmonella outbreaks. With detailed gene sequencing, the salmonella molecular “fingerprint” from contaminated food can be identified and linked to the same fingerprint for human cases of salmonella infection. CFSAN partners with other organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and uses the pathogen identification to help determine the source of an outbreak. This collaboration is key in helping protect people from foodborne illness.
It’s been two and a half years since Mayne joined CFSAN, and she says that everything she’s done on the road to her current job – her time at Cornell, her research at Yale and her understanding of food policy and law – has had a lasting effect.
“[It enabled me to be] a better leader and move forward on the things I care deeply about: food safety, nutrition and policy aimed at public health impact.”