Published: Sept. 2, 2011

Faculty conversations: Tammy Z. Movsas

Contact(s): Erica Shekell Office of Communications and Brand Strategy

Thirty years after attending a summer science program at Michigan State University, a former New York City high school student returned to MSU as a postdoctoral fellow - and reunited with the professor who inspired her career.

Tammy Z. Movsas, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Epidemiology, was one of 50 high school students from the East Coast who participated in MSU's seven-week high school honors summer science program in 1981.

At the time, Movsas wasn't sure which scientific field she was interested in, and was placed in the laboratory of Professor Charles Sweeley, who was the chairperson of the Department of Biochemistry at the time.

"Before I came over here as a high school student, I thought research meant going to a library and looking through books, and hadn't realized that I would be working with test tubes and giving presentations and learning all kinds of biochemical techniques," Movsas said.

From her summer science work, she produced a manuscript and entered it into the Westinghouse Science Talent Search contest, now known as the Intel Science Talent Search.

Of the thousands of applicants, Movsas was one of 40 finalists. She received letters and calls from Nobel Prize winners, the mayor of New York City and President Ronald Reagan and was invited to Washington, D.C., where she and the other winners met with Vice President George Bush, Sr. and various scientists at the National Institutes of Health.

Movsas attended Harvard University, graduating cum laude with a degree in biochemistry. She then attended Washington University School of Medicine and trained in both pediatric ophthalmology and neuro-ophthalmology (the study of visual problems related to the nervous system).

After several years of practicing clinical ophthalmology, she decided that she wanted to reincorporate research into her career.

"In particular, I was interested in the field of epidemiology," Movsas said. "It provides you with tools to identity risk factors for disease and targets for preventive medicine."

To accomplish this new goal, she decided to pursue a Masters of Public Health in Epidemiology along with a residency in Preventive Medicine at University of Michigan. During this training period, she contacted University Distinguished Professor Nigel Paneth who offered her the opportunity to do a perinatal epidemiology postdoctoral program at MSU to pursue her interest in the prevention of neuro-developmental diseases - such as autism.

During her postdoctoral fellowship, Movsas was reminiscing about her experiences in Sweeley's lab at MSU 30 years ago earlier, when Paneth mentioned that Sweeley still lived in the area. Movsas then found Sweeley's email address from a recent article he had written.

"I received back the most beautiful email from Sweeley saying that I had really made his day by contacting him and that it really had brought happiness to him that he realized that he had been such an important mentor to me," Movsas said.

Here at MSU, Movsas has been working on several projects involving autism in addition to a clinical trial through Sparrow Hospital measuring the amount of aluminum in infants' blood before and after vaccinations.

"Aluminum has been added to vaccines for more than 60 years - it's added for a good reason, it's actually added to make the vaccines more immunogenic, meaning to work better - but very little research has been done about the long-term safety of aluminum adjuvants as far as blood levels following immunization," Movsas said.


Tammy Z. Movsas, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Epidemiology, talks about coming back to MSU 30 years after visiting campus for a high school summer science program.

Tammy Z. Movsas, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Epidemiology, talks about coming back to MSU 30 years after visiting campus for a high school summer science program.

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