DTMI Profile: Lynn Sutton

From Music to Geology to Medical Research

June 23, 2014

Helping others is what drives Lynn Sutton, director of operations at Duke Translational Research Institute (DTRI).  She spends her days assisting scientists improve the lives of patients by making research easier.  In her own words, here’s how she turned a passion for music into a medical research career.

When did you come to Duke?

I came in 2007 as a project leader in DTRI.  At the time, I was working at King Pharmaceuticals managing drug development project teams but looking for a new challenge.  Since I had worked with Vicki Christian, DTRI chief operating officer, in the past, I contacted her asking if she would be a reference for another job opportunity.  During that phone call, Vicki recruited me to Duke.

How would you explain what you do at Duke to an 8th grader?

My job is to work with scientists at Duke who make discoveries in their labs that we think will benefit people one day.  I help them develop that discovery into a new drug or treatment.  A lot of what I do is helping to find funding or other resources the scientists need.

When you were in 8th grade, is this where you expected to end up?

No.  I started playing the piano at age 4 and was planning to be a music teacher.  During my freshman year in college, I realized that with all the practice it required, music was not fun to me anymore.  I changed my major to Science Education and went straight from my bachelor’s degree into a master’s program.  I used my specialty in earth science to obtain another master’s degree in Geology.  I worked as a geologist for four years focusing on cleaning up ground water. As a geologist, I learned project management skills and started managing large projects.

I quickly learned my project management work would translate well to other industries, which brought me to a job in a clinical research organization.  Some of the science was similar; for example, using geophysical imaging to study the earth is similar to images doctors use to study the human body.

When did you become aware of the term ‘translational medicine?’

I had never heard of it until Vicki recruited me to Duke.  Working at King Pharmaceuticals, my focus was drug development.  I knew how long it took to move ideas from the lab to the patient.  I wanted to help figure out how to speed this up.  The two worlds, pharmaceuticals and academia, are quite different and do not always understand each other. This contributes to the long timelines and I was excited to be a part of shortening them.

What has been a highlight of your time at Duke?

I led a CTSA Working Group on the best practices for funding pre-clinical Pilot Programs and led the effort for writing a white paper. Duke was unique in forming collaborative teams and viewing the pilot awards as agreements and not just grants.  We assign a whole team to the project, allowing us to change directions mid-year if needed.  Providing project leaders and regulatory support has been critical to the success of our pilot projects.  I loved highlighting this with other CTSAs and watching them adopt similar practices. 

How do you know if what you are doing makes a difference?

When I see incremental steps and forward movement, I know I am making a difference.  This progress can take a long time and the slow movement can be discouraging, but when a new treatment gets approval for use in a patient, it is very rewarding.

When you aren’t at Duke, what do you enjoy doing?

I spend a lot of time with my family, my husband and two kids.  My daughter is 14 and my son is 10 and they are busy with swim teams, track, scouts, and other activities. I’m also the Chair of the Children’s Council at my church. I’m developing a new ministry for 4th and 5th graders who want to serve people and see the difference they are making.

I also love to organize stuff.  I often help friends organize their homes.  It comes easy to me and it’s nice to learn about things my friends enjoy as I find ways to make it easier for them.

What is one thing you do for yourself to stay calm?

I love to hide somewhere quiet to read.  I like to read fiction – thrillers.  I also go to the beach as often as I can, as I love to sit on the beach, listen to the waves, and read a good book. 

Do you still play the piano?

I still play at my parents’ church or when relatives get married.  One day, I hope to get back into teaching.

Read more profiles of faculty and staff involved in translational medicine at Duke:

Ed Hammond

Shannon McCall