If you want to get a window into Dr. Mark Marshall’s world, all you have to do is look in his window – literally.
There in all its glory sits the head of a dinosaur. A fiberglass cast of a once-living, breathing dinosaur from about 150 million years ago, one that predated even the tyrannosaurus Rex.
The skull itself is huge – 52 inches long, a good 3 feet tall and weighing about 45 pounds. The full-sized dinosaur would have been about 40 feet long and in life would have weighed in the neighborhood of 4 tons.
”Attila,” as the dino is lovingly called, is intimidating, to say the least, even surrounded by festive Christmas lights on a cold January night.
Quite the centerpiece in the front window of the Eagle Creek-area home that Marshall shares with his wife, Jane. Oh, but there’s more. The entire room is filled with dinosaur artifacts, fossils, rocks and bones – a paleontologist’s dream.
Except Marshall isn’t a paleontologist. At least that’s not his day job. He’s scientific director of the IU Health Precision Genomics program at Riley Hospital for Children. He works every day to match sick kids with potentially lifesaving drugs.
“We get the toughest cases, the kids who’ve relapsed or where treatment failed,” he said. Purdue University super fan Tyler Trent, who died earlier this month, was one of some 200 patients in the program.
Marshall’s role is to analyze the genetic data pulled from cancerous tumors, consult with doctors on what new therapies might be out there, then tailor the medicine for that child.
So how does his passion for the prehistoric world fit into his modern world of scientific discovery?
“Let’s face it, almost all kids love dinosaurs,” he said. “Some of us never grow out of it. If anything, it helps (me) seem a little more human.”
And he has a basement full of fossils, so he has plenty to give away to patients. That’s right, bones and fossils in the basement, dinosaur teeth, shark teeth and baby dino eggs in his “travel room,” fossil art at home and in his office, even a tiny Christmas tree with dinosaur ornaments. Much of it he dug up on expeditions around the United States, either on land or while scuba diving.
“That’s a triceratops horn over there, and that’s the skull of a mosasaur,” he says, pointing to glass cases where he displays part of his collection. “That stuff’s all real.”
Jane Marshall indulges her husband’s fascination with all things prehistoric. Even when it comes to putting a dinosaur in her front window.
“When your husband’s nickname is Jurassic Mark, it kind of comes with the territory,” she said with a laugh.
Yep, Jurassic Mark. The name fits, just like the shirt he’s wearing with the tiny dinosaur stitched onto the front. He swears it’s the only dinosaur shirt he owns.
“I actually stopped wearing dinosaur shirts after I grew up.”
Apparently, the kid in him is still alive and well.
It should come as no surprise that Marshall wanted to be a paleontologist when he was a boy. Growing up in San Diego, he used to explore a canyon behind his elementary school, collecting fossil shells.
“They weren’t super old, only about 100,000 years old,” he says without a hint of sarcasm. He’d bring his “finds” home to show his parents, who encouraged his interest in rock and fossil collecting. His dad got him a lifetime subscription to National Geographic.
“I was in second grade and my mom used to get upset with me because I’d bring the same two library books home every week – on dinosaurs and fossils. I loved those books.”
He studied geology in college initially, but soon realized he was not cut out for that career. He turned to biology, then the genetic engineering revolution came about and that fascinated him.
Marshall, 62, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in microbiology and a doctorate in molecular biology with an emphasis in genetics, the latter from Princeton University. He’s been with the IU School of Medicine and IU Health for three years, but actually was first on staff at the medical school in the early 1990s before moving into drug development, most recently at Eli Lilly and Co.
His years in cancer research prepared her husband for his work today, explained Jane Marshall, who also works at Riley as project manager and clinical cancer exercise specialist.
“When Mark met with his first precision genomics patient, I can only describe it as an epiphany to him. All of those years had led up to finally working with the people that his drugs had been developed for,” she said.
“As difficult as the first few patient meetings were and the many tears that he fought back after the initial patient meetings,” she said, “they drove him harder to develop the most effective team to work on the tailored drug therapy for this most deserving population of relapsed cancer patients.”
And tapping into his boyhood love for dinosaurs and all kinds of fossils helps him deal with the disappointments that are a hazard of his job.
“Having diverse interests actually helps me concentrate. It’s just how I work,” he said. “I’m just very interested in nature and science and how everything fits together. Clearly the best thing I do is help kids with cancer, but this keeps me off the streets.”
-- By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist