PROFILE MARIANNE O’CONNOR PRICE: Balanced equation Mother of four excels in careers from engineering to research

Keywords Health Care


MARIANNE O’CONNOR PRICE Balanced equation Mother of four excels in careers from engineering to research When Marianne Price graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1974 with a degree in engineering, she was among the scarce 2 percent of women nationwide graduating in that field. She also achieved something that no other female at Notre Dame had ever done to that point-she was valedictorian of her graduating class.

Price, 54, is director of the Cornea Research Foundation of America, an Indianapolis-based research center founded 20 years ago by her husband, Dr. Francis Price. The foundation’s mission is to restore peoples’ vision.

A tale of two professions

Price attended an all-female high school in Nashville, Tenn. Nearby Vanderbilt University sent women engineers to her school to talk about opportunities for women in engineering.

“My high school was so small it didn’t even offer physics,” Price said. But what it lacked in some areas it more than made up for by offering opportunities to participate in a broad range of academic and extra-curricular activities.

“Part of my motivation for going into engineering is because I realized I did have talents in math and science and there weren’t many women in engineering,” Price said. “It was nice to have the opportunity to show that women can do really well in that subject and compete well with men.”

And compete well she did. As a project engineer at Union Carbide Corp. in Speedway, her background specialty in metallurgy-metals and ceramics-helped Price solve complex problems for the company’s clients.

“Our business was positioned at the high-tech, high-quality end … and some of our biggest customers were the aircraft industry, where you have to have extremely high-quality products that can be relied on.”

One of her favorite jobs was failure analysis. Donning the mantle of a crime-scene investigator, Price pieced together evidence to determine why a coating or part failed and came up with strategies for preventing future problems.

During her 15 years at the Speedway facility, Price was awarded two patents for processes she developed-and she balanced this challenging work and raising four children. It was a “very forward-thinking boss” who allowed her to work part-time for 12 of those years.

With the birth of her fourth child and the spinoff of her division to Danbury, Conn.-based Praxair Inc., a global specialty gasand-coatings company, she decided to leave to be a stay-at-home mom.

“Four children is a lot and the oldest were getting into the middle-school years,” Price explained. “I think this is a time when a lot of parents actually pay less attention [to their children], but it’s a time when kids can get into a lot of trouble. It seemed like a good time to be at home.”

During that time she volunteered as a docent at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and was a substitute teacher in math and science at Brebeuf Jesuit High School. In 1994, Price thought about becoming a physics teacher because of the shortage of science teachers, but she ran into a big obstacle-at the time Indiana required a degree in teaching, something that would require a considerable time investment.

“I had already picked up an MBA at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University in Indianapolis while at Union Carbide,” Price said. But even with the engineering degree and the MBA, both Butler and IU said she would have to take 90 undergraduate hours to be certified to teach. Indiana has since changed that requirement so that professionals can be fast-tracked to teaching degrees.

Changing career paths

It was a discussion with former Butler University professor and career counselor Jack Fadely that sparked a change of course into the biotech field.

“After 15 years in one company, I felt ready to do something new and exciting,” Price said. She earned a Ph.D. in medical and molecular genetics at Indiana University in 2002.

Dr. Mary Dinauer, director of the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research and professor of genetics at the IU School of Medicine, called Price’s thesis research “outstanding.”

“She was an outstanding graduate student and received a Chancellor’s Scholar award from IUPUI,” Dr. Dinauer said. “She is very clear-thinking, scientifically creative and very organized-getting things finished in half the time it takes many other people.”

When Price completed her degree, she joined her husband at the Cornea Research Foundation of America, where they conduct research on new surgical techniques and devices to help restore vision. Their findings are published in national and international journals, and monthly they conduct surgical training courses at the foundation for surgeons wanting to learn more about a corneatransplant technique developed by her husband. Twice a year they hold open houses for laypeople.

Elaine Voci, development director at the foundation, said that Price is able to convey information about their research-and its implications-to the public. “If it’s only relayed from the medical/scientific-research perspective, it’s hard for people to grasp the importance of it,” Voci said. “She does a very good job explaining the practical benefits of the research.”

Voci also sees Price as a good role model for younger women who are interested in careers in science or research. “She’s combined a couple of careers over her lifetime and successfully been a parent and spouse-all of the roles that women play. She’s an excellent example of someone who has bridged those worlds and tasks very effectively.”

The Prices find their work enjoyable and have an opportunity to travel, speaking in different parts of the world about the work they’re conducting here. One of the research trials they’re involved in is evaluating a slow-release drug implant that can be put directly into the eye.

“We’re looking at preventing transplant rejection, but you can imagine how this could be extended to other applications,” Price said. Her husband was the first investigator in the world to implant this drug.

What does the future hold? “There are so many exciting advances in health care and in eye care in particular,” Price said. “When anyone talks about the ‘good old days’ I say I wouldn’t want to live in any other time than now because we’re able to treat so many problems and make them better.”

As a working mother and accomplished career woman, she offers practical advice to young women beginning their careers.

“I was at the cusp of women coming along when the Equal Rights Amendment was being considered,” she said. “It was a time when women were told, ‘You can do it all.’What I tell women is you can do it all in the course of a lifetime, but it’s impossible to do it all at the same time. At certain times you can put more time into family and at other times in your career.”

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