LaMarca transforms pharmacology department through teambuilding, collaboration
Published on Monday, November 28, 2022
By: Andrea Wright Dilworth, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Babbette LaMarca was bitten by the research bug her senior year of high school when a Mississippi College professor spoke to her Advanced Placement biology class, sealing her fate as a scientist.
“He talked about genetics, the process of academia and the pace, and I became enthralled by his lecture and very interested in doing human genetics,” says LaMarca.
That interest in genetics developed into a love for molecular biology at MC, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry and worked briefly as a lab assistant before donning a lab coat as a research assistant in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Department of Preventative Medicine.
Minus a year teaching high school biology (which solidified her desire to quickly return to the lab), she’s been at UMMC ever since, 27 years, earning a doctorate in microbiology and immunology and serving in various clinical and faculty appointments.
Now chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology after a stint as interim, the lifelong Clinton resident has transitioned from faculty member, where her focus was her own research agenda and those of a handful of trainees, to leader, where she has been charged with refocusing the department.
The new role hasn’t been without its challenges, the biggest of which was also her main goal: convincing her nearly 20 faculty members to buy into the power and benefits of teamwork.
“I look at UMMC as being a small scientific community that can be a lot stronger if everybody’s working together,” LaMarca explains. “Science is a very competitive world. It’s ‘I’ve got to have the most papers’ because we’re taught for years and years that we have to be the best. You know, papers turn into grants, and grants turn into more papers, which turn into more grants. It’s a vicious cycle, and you lose sight of contributing to the scientific community.“
“So, my first goal was to bring this talented group of people together as a group and not individual silos. I think we’ve achieved that. Everybody wants to be part of a good team, and people want to help other people. It’s in our nature. We just want incentive. So, you encourage and recognize people’s talents and allow them to be leaders in their own rights. And it almost just naturally comes out of people.”
Dr. Stanley Smith, professor of pharmacology, says having LaMarca as chair has been “refreshing” as she’s proven she’s up to the challenge of bringing faculty members together, enhancing their abilities, and making sure each has a clear role with her support, in the process creating a collegial environment in which she is not only willing to discuss needs and problems, but comes up with viable solutions.
“She has made a transformative impact on the department and UMMC,” says Smith. “She has grown the department by promoting and encouraging young faculty and providing them with mentorship and support. For more senior faculty such as myself, she has helped and guided several of us into roles that have enabled us to be successful and important contributors to the goals of the department.
“She has created a true team environment where everyone’s role is defined, valued and important. The synergy that results is not only refreshing but makes each of us strive to improve and grow.”
To achieve the goal of building faculty collegiality and collaboration, LaMarca had to find the tools. She couldn’t expect faculty to consistently use their labs and machines for another team member’s research. So, she invested back into the department with new technology, created department cores with directors and hired a clinical research coordinator to help faculty link their basic science research interests back to the clinical mission.
“The research that you do in the lab on the rats and the cells or whatever your model is really doesn’t matter if you can’t apply it clinically,” says LaMarca, who has seven ongoing research projects, of which she is principal investigator on two.
Balancing it all is another challenge. In addition to leading the program and finding time for her own research, which focuses primarily on hypertension in pregnancy, LaMarca has to still prioritize time to mentor her fellows and graduate students.
One former mentee, Dr. Kedra Wallace, who was appointed associate professor of pharmacology last year, says a team builder, LaMarca gives everyone a chance and encourages them to find a niche that will help them be successful both at UMMC and beyond.
“She encourages everyone to collaborate with others so that no one is competing within the same research space,” says Wallace. “Overall, her willingness to develop the person for their good, combined with her goal of everyone being a team player is what, in my opinion, makes her a great chair. She realizes that her strength may not be your strength, but we can all work together to really have a positive impact on the research and the overall mission of UMMC.”
That overall mission is integral to what LaMarca finds most rewarding about being a research scientist: developing new ways to improve health care, which she stresses to students.
Owen Herrock, a fifth-year doctoral student in experimental therapeutics and pharmacology, says LaMarca’s empowering leadership style extends into the lab, where she has trained him to focus on how his work affects real patients, taught him to work hard but give himself grace, encouraged him to work at work and rest to recover, and pushed him to apply for awards he didn’t think he was qualified for.
“She is so very encouraging as a mentor,” Herrock says. “She also teaches that everyone deserves to feel appreciated; that people do not work under you, they work with you; that the data is the data and to be honest in what you report; and though your hypothesis may not have fit perfectly, your work still has value, and it’s your job as a scientist to figure out how it fits.”
Dr. Joey Granger, associate vice chancellor for research and LaMarca’s mentor when she was a postdoctoral fellow in his lab, is “delighted” by the appointment of his former student, who is also internationally recognized for her preeclampsia research.
“She has outstanding organizational, leadership and mentorship skills,” says Granger. “We all look forward to seeing her oversee a productive basic science department that excels in research, education, and local and national service.”
Outside of work, LaMarca de-stresses by running with her dogs a few times a week for a combined 15 miles or so. She enjoys watching movies and college football, cooking, and spending time with family: husband Darren, their three children and two grandchildren.
She lives her life by a simple truth. “I just try to do what my dad always said we should do, which was, ‘do the right thing for the right reasons and go about it the right way.’ So, I just try to approach challenges and opportunities with this teaching in the front of my decision making.”