Award-winning Horsley studies skin’s mysteries

March 02, 2013 | Jim Stewart

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by Sarah Webb

Two thousand twelve was an especially good year for biologist Valerie Horsley ’98.

First, the Yale University professor won a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, which comes with research funding, national recognition and an opportunity to meet the president. Within weeks after meeting President Obama in Washington in July, Horsley learned that she’d won a second major prize, the Rosalind Franklin Young Investigator Award. This prestigious honor, named for a researcher who helped discover the structure of DNA, is given just once every three years to two women scientists for creative research in genetics.

Horsley studies how biological tissues form and maintain themselves. “The reasons that our bodies work so well is that all our tissues work together,” she says. Problems with tissues can lead to diseases, she says, so understanding how those cells work together can help researchers design therapies to correct problems.

As a Ph.D. student, Horsley studied muscle tissues. More recently, she has focused on how skin forms and functions, which could lead to treatments for skin diseases, hair loss and cancer.

At first Horsley considered a career as a physician, but by her sophomore year at Furman she realized that her fundamental interest in science wasn’t fueled by a desire to treat sick patients. So she started thinking about other options, particularly teaching.

Her advisor at Furman, biology professor Joe Pollard, remembers her as a mature, articulate student who wasn’t shy about speaking up. “She was able to organize her thoughts and present a good argument,” he says.

After Furman, Horsley went to Emory University for her Ph.D. Working with  Grace Pavlath, she studied how muscle cells grow and develop and served as a teaching assistant. Although she enjoyed passing along knowledge to students, she says, “Learning new things [in the laboratory] is really fun.” She soon realized that her passion for science grew primarily from her time at the laboratory bench.

The road to a research career in biology typically involves completing a Ph.D. followed by several years of postdoctoral training. For her postdoctoral studies Horsley decided that she wanted to work on a new tissue. She landed a position working on skin with Elaine Fuchs at Rockefeller University in New York City.

In 2009 she took a faculty position at Yale, where she now leads a laboratory of eight researchers and teaches biology courses. She and her team study how skin develops before birth, how fat cells help skin heal and regenerate, and how the tugging actions between individual skin cells influence the development of this vital tissue.

Horsley’s mentors are far from surprised by her success and recent recognition. “She was productive and a good multitasker,” says Pavlath. “She had very broad interests even early on.”

Fuchs describes Horsley as “the complete package.” Running a successful lab involves a combination of analytical skills and focus in the laboratory and the ability to organize others. “Valerie has natural leadership instincts. She’s really skilled at mentoring people,” Fuchs adds.

Horsley sees herself in part as a cheerleader for her students and postdocs. “Science is really hard because experiments don’t work all the time. On one hand we want to be critical and assess the science, but on the other hand you have to pick yourself up every day and do the experiment again even though it didn’t work the day before,” she says.

Horsley’s mentorship has even reached back to the Furman community. As an undergraduate, she was a regular babysitter for Pollard’s young children. This year, Pollard says, when his daughter Beth was applying to Ph.D. programs in molecular biology, Horsley returned the advising favor.

As a recipient of an award named for a famous female scientist, Horsley represents a generation of women scientists who are trying to make research careers more appealing to more women. “I had a lot of smart friends in graduate school who didn’t stay in academia,” she says.

A primary challenge for young scientists, she says, is the desire to raise children while pursuing a demanding career that involves many years of training. Horsley and her husband Matt Rodeheffer, also a Yale biology professor, have two young daughters, Avery and Evelyn, ages 6 and 1½.

Women, in particular, need more role models, Horsley says. “Part of what motivates me is that I hope that people see that I have a family and I do good work, and that you can be successful and have a life outside of work.”

The author, a 1996 graduate, is a freelance science writer in Chattanooga, Tenn. She is a contributor to The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age (Da Capo Press, 2013) and is chief editor of the book’s website.

This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Furman magazine.