As a child growing up in Scarborough, Sarah Peterson was drawn to exploration. The two things she loved exploring most: medicine and Maine’s unique landscape. “There is a picture of me in which I have climbed into our springer spaniel’s crate with a plastic stethoscope to give her an exam. I’m 3 and I’m in my bathing suit, presumably headed to or from Ferry Beach in Scarborough, where I spent a lot of happy hours,” says Sarah. “I guess you could say I had a vision then for doing a demanding job while keeping my priority on leisure time in sight.” Now, as a cardiovascular research scientist living and working in Maine, Sarah remains connected to what she describes as “one of the most stunning landscapes imaginable to work, live and play.” Fortuitously enough, she works only five minutes from her favorite childhood spot, Ferry Beach.
After graduating from Brown University with an undergraduate degree in biomedical ethics and then a medical degree, Sarah started her career as a family medicine doctor at Maine Medical Center. In 2010, she decided to pursue a doctorate in cell and molecular biology through the University of Maine Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering. In January 2016, Sarah became a postdoctoral research fellow at the Myocardial Biology & Heart Failure Lab at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough, where she is among a group of cardiac physicians and scientists working to address the problem of cardiovascular disease, the second-leading cause of death in Maine and a primary concern for Maine’s aging demographic. “Working in an interdisciplinary group allows us to engage with patients interested in enrolling in the latest clinical studies, while also accessing state-of-the-art scientific equipment at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute,” Sarah says, acknowledging that she is fortunate to work in such a “high-caliber lab with colleagues from around the world who have chosen to live and work in Maine.”
Sarah’s research focuses on studying patient recovery from heart surgery and exploring opportunities for cardiac regeneration. She and her colleagues collect and study differences in the blood cells of clinical study subjects to determine the challenges involved with heart failure patients, and in the process, they hope to uncover groundbreaking solutions to heart disease.
“I am motivated every day by the idea that I may help discover new treatments for heart disease,” Sarah says. “There has never been a more exciting time to be a scientist. It’s a discipline that builds on the work of those who have come before, yet you never stop discovering and learning. We now have the ability to culture cells from fragments of human heart tissue donated during an open-heart surgery procedure and investigate ways to regenerate heart tissue after injury. There’s a lot you can do now that no one dreamed was possible.”
Despite the excitement and successes of her research, Sarah also acknowledges the challenge of “keeping a narrow enough focus that you can truly make progress in your chosen field.” Another challenge involves the balance of “keeping perspective on the big picture of what really matters, while raising two kids and managing to have fun after a day looking through a dissecting microscope at heart vessels in mice.”
To maintain this perspective and balance, Sarah has the support of her extended family who live and work nearby and who take turns cooking family meals. “I only have to cook a big meal once a week, and while it might be unusual to share meals with 10-plus family members four to five nights a week, it is a lot more sane and creates a kind of routine in itself. Plus, our kids have a lot more adults to turn to if they have a rough day.”
Sarah seems to have found the key to maintaining a strong work-life balance. “When you work a lot of hours, you have to love your work, but you also have to savor the small tasks of daily living because sometimes that is all you get. Believe it or not, settling into an after-dinner piano practice with my 9-year-old is a pretty enjoyable pastime.”
Sarah’s husband is also a doctor, which means they have to plan ahead to take vacations, “but when you live in a city where you can get to the ocean or a decent hike in 20 minutes, there’s time for a lot of what I call mini vacations.”
For Sarah and her family, Maine is a place that continues to foster both connection and self-discovery. “Raising my two girls here, both of whom love to swim and have spent countless hours at Camp Ketcha, which is less than a mile from where I grew up, is a real gift. They are developing a love of place and the great outdoors, which is an excellent foundation for discovering what work you want to do later in life.”
Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie. In her spare time she enjoys hiking, biking and exploring Maine’s midcoast by water.