Marisa B. Marques, M.D., head of the section of Transfusion Medicine in the UAB Department of Pathology was only 13 years old when she decided to become a doctor. “I don’t remember why,” Marques remembered, “I didn’t know any people in the medical profession.” But the notion took hold, and became the focus of her ambition.

Marques grew up in Brazil, the oldest of four children, the only daughter of a teacher and an accountant. Her father encouraged her to be a lawyer, “Probably because I argued with him all the time,” Marques laughed. But law, she determined, wasn’t for her.

A high academic performer, she never doubted that she would achieve her goal of being admitted to medical school – and in fact, on graduating highM Marques real school, she was admitted to the medical school in her city. In Brazil, students attend the university in their local area, and in Marques’ case, she was fortunate that her local medical school was one of the best in the country. 

She had discovered her love for internal medicine when she met the man she would marry – another medical student, a year ahead of her. They didn’t know each other well when he told her, “When I finish medical school, I’m going to train in the United States.”

Marques, already interested in the older student, declared, “When you go, I’m going with you.”

As with her medical school ambition, Marques fulfilled her promise. They married soon after her graduation from medical school, and two years later they both started work in the United States at the National Institutes of Health. Her husband gained a fellowship at the NIH first, in thyroid research, and was instrumental in helping Marques find a place. 

There was only one problem: Marques’ comprehension of English was still so low that she had failed the TOEFL, the English language examination required of foreign-born residents. 

“Most of what I knew about America I learned from watching movies,” Marques said. “I knew how to speak some English, but I had a hard time understanding people.”

The NIH hired her anyway, with the idea that she would take the TOEFL again after working there for a few months. It was, in her words, “the most wonderful place for someone like me to go,” because the NIH drew people from all over the world, many of whom had greater difficulty with English. 

A few months after moving to the U.S., Marques took the TOEFL again – and this time performed so much better that the testing agency suspected her of cheating and held her scores. When they were told that the improvement in her English skills was due to immersion, they validated her results.

It was at the NIH that Marques discovered a love for research. She had believed that her career would be entirely clinical, but through exposure to that world she fell in love with the lab. It was this love of research that facilitated her next career step. When Marques’ husband decided that he wanted to pursue a clinical fellowship in Boston, Marques began the application for an infectious disease fellowship in the area. She got an interview with Harvard Medical School, but after the interview, Dr. Dennis Kasper, who would later become her mentor, informed her that foreign-born applicants were seldom accepted for fellowships. 

Instead of feeling resentful, Marques was grateful for the clarification, and told Kasper that she would be happy doing research instead of clinical work.

Kasper helped Marques find a position in a lab in his division, and allowed her to do some training with the clinical fellows as well. But the lab situation in which Marques found herself was deeply unpleasant; her supervisor was difficult to work with. She tolerated the situation as long as she could, but when she was about to take time for maternity leave for the birth of her first son, she told Kasper she didn’t want to return. 

Rather that lose Marques, Kasper offered her a position in his lab. It was, Marques recalls, her “dream job.” She worked there for three years, until the end of her husband’s J1 Visa necessitated a move. 

The move landed the young family in Birmingham, Alabama, where Marques found herself in the position of shifting her career path again. She wanted to resume some type of clinical work, and found the field of clinical pathology intriguing. She planned to become a clinical microbiology because infectious disease was her previous area of research. She pivoted, training in all aspects of pathology in her residency because she was uncertain where her career would take her. 

Ultimately, her career took her into transfusion medicine – something she could not have predicted, but for which UAB had a need. The career choice was a good one for Marques, and she has grown with it, now serving as the head of the section of Transfusion Medicine for the last 16 years. In 2019, she was named as the recipient of the Dean’s Excellence Award in Teaching. 

Her recognition of the particular challenges confronting women physicians also spurred her involvement in re-forming the UAB Chapter of the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA), for which she now serves as president.

“I think it’s important for young people to know that you adjust your life as opportunities arise,” Marques said. “Some doors close, and others open, which may be very cliché, but it’s true.” 

She hopes her legacy at AMWA will be in mentorship, matching students to faculty members, and helping students and junior faculty members grow their careers. And Marques herself intends to keep learning and growing as well.

“The best way to learn is when you’re motivated,” she said, “because you have to share with somebody. That still keeps me going.”