Alumna’s Legacy Lives On
The family members of the late Susan Masewicz ’74 had gathered in Seattle to attend a memorial service held in her honor by her co-workers. To say
the least, they were surprised by what they heard.
“It blew us away,” her brother Marty Masewicz said. “We knew she worked hard, but we didn’t know how important the work she was doing was. She was recognized by people from around the world.”
After earning her bachelor of science degree, Viterbo alumna Susan Masewicz had spent her 30-year professional career doing ground-breaking work, researching the cells in blood that determine immune responses during her career at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle.
Her life was cut short at the age of 53 in July 2006 after a brief but courageous fight with ovarian cancer. Her important work and her legacy will go on, thanks to the generosity of her brothers and sister.
“I said, ‘Let’s think of what Susan would do,’” said Marty, who along with his brother Robert and sister Cathy, had inherited Susan’s estate. Marty had been the closest to Susan, often visiting her from his home in Alaska. “We could all buy new cars, or we could do something good with the money.”
Wanting to help future scientists, the Masewicz family gave a $52,000 gift to Viterbo University, to be used to help students interested in cellular research. They also made a $52,000 gift to the Benaroya Research Institute.
Viterbo’s vice president for institutional advancement, Gary Klein, said the Viterbo community is very proud of Susan Masewicz’s many accomplishments and is grateful for the opportunity to continue her legacy through her estate gift.
“Although I only met and spoke with Susan once, her passion for life and her work were quite obvious,” Klein said. “Susan’s gift will create an endowment to sponsor summer research for students at Viterbo.”
The Masewicz family selected Viterbo as a beneficiary of Susan’s estate because Susan had held the university in high regard and was very happy with the education she had received. The science department also provided a natural outlet to assist students in cellular research.
“Viterbo definitely set her off on the right path,” Marty Masewicz said. “Viterbo was exactly what she was looking for, and she did outstanding there.”
A La Crescent, Minn. native, Susan Masewicz was born July 26, 1952, the oldest child of Edwin and Charlotte Masewicz. After graduating from Viterbo, she completed additional training as a medical technologist at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul before moving west.
“Susan was a joy to work with,” said Ron Amel, the long-time chemistry professor at Viterbo who taught Masewicz organic chemistry. “She was an excellent student who was very hard working and conscientious. It’s not surprising to me that she did well.”
She went on to join the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where she became an expert in the research of T-cell immunobiology. There, she was a key member of the team that pioneered ways to grow T-cells that regulate a key feature of human immunity. She was also on the bone marrow transplantation team led by Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, who won the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
In 1994, Masewicz became a research assistant for the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason. Masewicz made many significant contributions to research of diseases such as juvenile diabetes, publishing over 24 scientific papers and giving numerous presentations at scientific conferences. The T-cells grown and studied by her provided some of the first insights into the precise nature of the immune reactions in diabetes, and she generously provided cultures of her precious cells to other researchers around the world.
At the end of her life, she had been working on an extremely important project, attempting to understand how disease-causing autoimmune T-cells become resistant to therapy. Many important doctors and scientists had trained under her care.
“We knew she was doing important work out there, but we didn’t know how important,” Charlotte Masewicz said of her daughter’s humility. “And we didn’t know the good she was doing with it. That’s just the way Susan was.”
A desire to help people was a driving inspiration in her work, her mother said. She was also very conscious of the world around her. She loved nature. Her home and garden were full of flowers and plants and she spent a great deal of time hiking throughout the Pacific Northwest. She traveled extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan.
She kept an M&M® candy dispenser on her desk at the lab so she could help when someone’s day needed brightening. She loved crossword puzzles, books, cookies, and people.
“Susan liked the values of St. Francis,” Charlotte Masewicz said. “She tried to live simply—she didn’t have a lot of stuff.”
She also harbored an incredible respect for all living things.
“I remember once there was a spider in the house,” her mother said. “Susan put a glass over it and carried it outside. Our family liked to say she was the original pro-life person.”
Masewicz was dedicated to her family, spending countless hours with them on the Mississippi River and the lakes of Minnesota. She also had a wide circle of friends, her mother said.
“Her hospital room looked like a flower shop,” she said.
Diagnosed with a rare, fast-moving form of ovarian cancer, Susan was told by doctors there was nothing they could do. She was prescribed morphine, and encouraged to make her final arrangements. Her family members arrived in Seattle and saw her the next day.
“The next day she was gone,” Marty Masewicz said.
The large crowd and kind words at the memorial service did a great deal to comfort him and his grieving family members, he said. He fondly remembers his sister as an “easy-going, good natured person who just enjoyed each day to the fullest.”
Her life ended sooner than it should have. Her memory and her legacy certainly won’t.
“We’re very proud of Susan’s life,” Charlotte Masewicz said. “She accomplished
a great deal during her 53 years.”
How will the $52,000 gift from the Masewicz family be used? To provide funding that will enable a student to perform a major research project each summer, explained Biology Professor Ward Jones.
“The really neat thing is that the first research project will essentially mirror Susan’s work,” Jones said. “The student will examine compounds that potentially inhibit T-cell activation.”
When the Viterbo science building—the D.B. and Marge Reinhart Institute for Ethics, Science, and Technology—opened in 2003, the department members decided to revamp the curriculum. What came with it is known as the Capstone Research Series, three courses all biology, chemistry, and biochemistry students must take. In the course of their studies, students work with a mentor to: develop a research project, write a proposal, implement the project, and report and present their findings.
The Masewicz family gift will provide a stipend and materials for a student to conduct his or her project on campus each summer. It is an endowed fund and will continue indefinitely. The Masewicz family took the opportunity to tour the Reinhart Center in December. “Susan had a lot of good memories from her time at Viterbo,” Jones said.
Jones said research positions such as these are extremely important to students because the projects prepare them for the future in many ways. Specifically, students learn to think critically, design and implement research experiments, and present what they have learned. They also acquire important writing and laboratory skills.
“Undergraduate research is an essential component of our curriculum and this gift will allow us to better serve the students,” Jones said.