Magdalena Usategui

Magdalena Usategui – BS ’56, MS ’58 and PhD ‘61

Early Years (1952)

Magda Rembrandt Photo

Magdalena was born and raised in Cuba where her father was a brilliant lawyer who died when she was only 12 years old.  Her mother assumed the conventional role of homemaker and cared for her three children.  Young Magdalena was not enthusiastic about the tertiary education opportunities in her homeland and the traditional expectations of women at the time.  Her mother was supportive of her ambitious, youngest child and arranged for her to repeat her senior year of high school at Ravenhill Academy, a private Catholic girls’ high school in Germantown, PA, to improve her English and acclimate her to the USA.  She then had a scholarship to attend Immaculata University in Paoli, PA.  Notwithstanding a nun who was particularly encouraging, and her being top of her class, Magdalena was disappointed by the lack of science courses.  Major east coast schools seemed reluctant to admit a woman to their chemistry or physics programs.  Friends of her family had sons in Chemical Engineering at LSU and spoke with Dean Choppin, who was happy to accept her on the basis of her scholarly record.  Eventually, Magdalena’s brother and sister also moved to the USA;  she has no relatives left in Cuba.

LSU (1953-61)

magda in chair

Magdalena came to LSU in 1953 and lived in a dormitory for foreign women, the French House.  She had a close friend from Cuba, Aurora Fernandez de Castro, with whom she took most of her classes, wherein they were largely ignored by the men.  While some professors were supportive, others more than suggested that she should “go home where women belong,” and another who made it difficult for her to achieve the A-grade that she deserved.  While medicine interested young Magdalena, biology was not for her, as she was opposed to experiments that involved cruelty to animals.  Dean Choppin assured her that chemistry, physics and mathematics were the serious sciences, anyway!  She has good memories of her undergraduate days in Baton Rouge and was happy to receive her BS degree cum laude, earning awards from the APS  and the ACS along the way.  Dr Philip West organized a summer job for Magdalena at Continental Oil in Oklahoma and her mother came to visit that summer.

She returned to LSU to perform research with Professor West.  Her thesis was titled, “Spot Test Detection of Pyrogallol, Resorcinal, Pyrocatechol, Phloroglucinol and Hydroquinone,” and she graduated with her MS in 1958.  Again, seeking work experience, she interviewed for a job at Dupont.  There was something of a miscommunication, as they were seeking a permanent employee;  nevertheless they gave her a summer job in Waynesboro, VA, at a research station where nylon and orlon were synthesized.  At the end of the summer, Magdalena returned to LSU for her doctoral studies.  She sought out an advisor who would be more “hands-on” than Professor West.  She was the only female graduate student in the School of Chemistry & Physics at that time, but understood that there were others who came before her.  She joined the inorganic chemistry group of Professor Joel Selbin and completed her dissertation titled, “Higher Oxidation States of Silver” in 1961and published her work (J. Inorg. Nuc. Chem1961, 20, 91-99).

Exploring Career Opportunities (1961-98)

Magda in 1984

Following her LSU PhD, Magdalena returned to Dupont for a time.  However, her work with synthetic polymers and a “not-so-bright” male MS boss, led her to continue her search for knowledge.  She was still in touch with her friend Aurora, who was pursuing a PhD in physics at the Case Institute of Technology (which became Case Western Reserve University in 1967).  Magdalena moved to Cleveland, OH, and began a second doctorate.  She really enjoyed her work as a TA and went out of her way to help students.  One day she came into the classroom to find “Literature 101” on the board;  some didn’t think a woman should be teaching physics.  How did Dr Usatageui handle this?  She erased the statement on the board and began her class.  The faculty of the Physics Department questioned whether someone without a PhD in physics, much less a woman, should be teaching freshman and sophomore physics classes and gave her two weeks to prepare for a qualifying exam.  While she passed the exam, she hadn’t done any research, and the graduate coursework she had been taking led her to realize that theoretical physics wasn’t for her.

Her enduring interest in medicine led her to the work of Dr Helene Toolan, at the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, that was beginning to link viruses to cancer.  She received a telegram, inviting her to visit the Institute in New York City.  By the end of the day, Magdalena had received a job offer from Toolan.  Not long after, Toolan agreed to take up a position at a new Cancer Research Institute at Putnam Memorial Hospital.  She assured Magdalena that  her position was secure but was now located in Bennington, VT.  Magdalena and two friends took a Christmas vacation to visit and remembers Bennington as, “a little town surrounded by beautiful mountains.”  She recalls telling Toolan, “I don’t think I can come to work here.  I am going to be buried alive in this town.”  Toolan countered by asking her how she would learn about their work and make contributions if she did not move to Vermont.  Usategui accepted a one-year position and stayed for five.  After several more chapters of her career, she ultimately chose to retire to Bennington, VT.

Magdalena enjoyed the work with Toolan but reached a point where she sought a switch from basic to applied research.  She interviewed for a position at the Ames Laboratory, a subsidiary of Miles Laboratories, in Elkhart, Indiana.  The person conducting the interview declared that researchers worked 12 hours a day at Ames.  Magdalena said that she didn’t think she belonged there as she believed in working an efficient 8-hour day.  Despite these differences, Magdalena was offered a job and worked there for a few years.  Meanwhile, Aurora had completed a PhD in microbiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  They published a paper together on the Regan isozyme of alkaline phosphatase, providing evidence that it was not a tumor antigen (Cancer Res.  1974, 34, 2544-2545).

Dr Usategui has always prided herself on being direct in her interactions.  Dr Nina Sanberg, a friend, once observed that she “has no limitation to her abilities, but a disconcerting habit of speaking the truth.”  Magdalena laughs as she recalls this testimony and is proud to be guilty as charged.  In 1973, she interviewed for a job at Hoffman LaRoche and told the interviewer, who ultimately became her boss, “it’s your loss if you don’t hire me, I’m very good.  In fact I already have another offer.” They offered her the position and she stayed for 20 years.  Of opportunities, she says, “if you don’t get what you want, it wasn’t for you.”

During her years at Hoffman-LaRoche, Magdalena worked on many projects and rose through the ranks, becoming the Director and Vice-President of Research and Development in the Diagnostics Division in 1984.  Of her time in industry, she recalls no gender discrimination.  She says, “in industry, if you make products and money, then they’re happy.”  She thrived on solving problems and had weekly discussions with her Swiss and German counterparts.  Patents include immunoassays for tetrahydrocannabinoid metabolites, stabilized solutions of angiotensin I, and a rapid test for the detection of myocardial infarction.  The challenge was often how to merge this technology with instrumentation to produce a key product.  As much as the science and the business, Dr Usategui recalls fondly the people who worked with her.  She encouraged and supported her people for promotions and was the industrial advisor for some of her colleagues who completed PhD degrees at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ.  As Director, Dr Usategui enabled her researchers and, while she has 48 publications to her name, she abstained from being listed as a co-author on those of  her group members.

In 1993, Dr Usategui retired from Hoffman LaRoche, but retained an office and became a valued consultant.  She also consulted for a Spectra Diagnostics, in Toronto, Canada, and was their Director of Research for Quality Control & Production for a time.  She spent one week a month in Canada and otherwise communicated with her people via phone and faxes.  Ultimately, she found a new director for them, so that she could truly retire in 1998.

Retirement and Other Interests (1998-present)

magda with dog named glory

As early as 1979, Magdalena started rescuing animals;  for many years she pursued this crusade in the little spare time afforded by her responsibilities at Hoffman-LaRoche.  One of the drivers for retirement was her desire to dedicate herself full-time to this mission.  In 2009, Peter McLaughlin reported, in the Berkshire Eagle:  “It's a below-zero morning and Magdalena Usategui, in a brown hooded parka and blue jeans, takes six cats in cages from her car and carries them across the frozen parking lot into the Agway store in Williamstown. She puts a sign on the sidewalk that reads "Cats & Kittens: Adoption Today" and starts her long day of finding new homes for the abandoned and feral cats.”  Driven by animal welfare and the inability of poor residents to sustain nutritional and veterinary care for their pets, she founded the “Francis of Assisi Society for Animals,” whose mission is “to see the day when all feral and abandoned cats in the Bennington County area are treated and respected as sentient beings that have very similar needs to ours.  We want them to never experience the horrors of hunger, diseases and fear that in most cases leads to lonely deaths.”  She remains the heart and soul of the organization, although she has relinquished the position of Chairman of the Board recently.  In retirement, she has also discovered a thirst for history, music and economics and reads widely on these topics.

In the context of her work with cats and her vision for her organization, Magdalena once told a reporter, "I have big dreams," she said," but if you don't dream big you'll never achieve big things."  The same was applicable to her scientific career.  She appreciates the opportunity LSU gave a young lady from Cuba in the 1950s.  Some 65 years after coming to the USA for high school, she has gone on to make major contributions to science and diagnostics, and to a better life for the residents of Bennington County, feline and human.

 Profile contributed by Carol M. Taylor