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Faculty Focus: Laura Ponto, PhD

Date: Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Laura Ponto, PhDWhat is your hometown?

Des Moines, IA

How/when did you become interested in science and/or medicine?

Although I always thought that I would be a history major and then possibly go to law school, on my way to orientation here at the University of Iowa, I decided that I wanted to go to pharmacy school. I had superb biology and chemistry teachers in high school who provided me with a solid academic foundation and an intellectual curiosity.

When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?


How or why did you choose to join the faculty at the University of Iowa?

I am an Iowa-Iowa-Iowa: BS/MS/PhD – although I have lived on both coasts. I went to Iowa for my undergraduate degree because my parents told me I could go anywhere that I wanted to go to college if it was an in-state, state school which left me one option in pharmacy. After I graduated, I followed my husband to California for his graduate work and then to North Carolina for his residency.  He was offered a job at Iowa, so we moved back. I then returned to school and received my masters and PhD degrees. We were offered jobs at other academic institutions, but for family reasons it was best that we stay in Iowa. So, I adapted my pharmacokinetics training into tracer kinetic modeling and was offered the opportunity to join in helping to establish the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics PET Imaging Center. 

Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?

At the end of my master’s degree, I was working for Hazel Seaba at the Iowa Drug Information Service. She was interviewing me for a staff job that I was the obvious choice to receive. However, she told me that I should really get a PhD instead of taking her job. All of the male professors who had given me As in their classes had never bothered to even consider me for a PhD but Hazel gave me the encouragement that I needed at that point in time.

How do you see your faculty role impacting medicine and/or science?

Rarely, does one get to be in on the ground floor of a new field. In 1990 when the PET Center was established, we were a research only entity working with high level UI investigators like Dr. Nancy Andreasen, Dr. Richard Hurtig, Dr. Thomas Grabowski, and Drs. Antonio and Hanna Damasio with a single scanner and 5 team members. Today, PET is not only an important research tool but is an essential clinical tool in oncology, neurology, and cardiology. UIHC/UI currently has 5 PET/CT scanners and scans more than 20 patients/day. In addition, we participate in multicenter studies such as the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI) and drug trials for Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. I have a very eclectic research portfolio from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease to cochlear implants to marijuana.

What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a student?

Computers. I am old enough to remember slide rules and getting my first calculator (most prized possession as a student). The image analysis and modeling work that I do now would have been completely impossible when I was a student.

What one piece of advice would you give to today's students?

Be open to possibilities. What you may end up doing with your life may not even exist yet – so get a good foundation of basic knowledge, be willing to learn new things, and then see where the opportunities take you.

In what ways are you engaged in professional activities outside the University (i.e. population-based research, mentoring high school students, sharing your leadership/ expertise with organizations or causes, speaking engagement off campus, etc.)?

I am involved with the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), Nuclear Pharmacy SIG, and the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS) Pharmacoimaging Community. I also am on the Advisory Board for the Nuclear Pharmacy Continuing Education Program at Purdue University.

What are some of your outside (personal) interests?

Gardening, baking (especially cookies), exercise (running, biking), Hawkeye sports, and most importantly, my grandchildren, Alice, Adam and Max.

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