In Memoriam: Karen Maruska, PhD
June 9, 2023

As some of you know, Dr. Karen Maruska passed away on March 7th of this year after a long battle with cancer. Karen was an excellent neuroethologist and behavioral neuroendocrinologist as well as a dedicated mentor and colleague who will be greatly missed. Karen’s research greatly increased our understanding of how multimodal sensory information is integrated into complex social decision-making processes.

Karen grew up in New Jersey, received her undergraduate degree from the University of New Hampshire, where she did research on the neuroendocrine system of basal vertebrates with Dr. Stacia Sower, followed by MS research with Dr. Tim Tricas at the Florida Institute of Technology on the reproductive endocrinology of elasmobranch fishes. Karen then moved with the Tricas laboratory to the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, where she completed her doctoral research with 11 publications, most of them focused on the sensory neuroendocrinology of damselfish social behavior. This stellar body of early work laid the foundation for Karen’s independent research career, which she launched after a very successful postdoc with Dr. Russ Fernald at Stanford University. While at Stanford, Karen provided numerous novel insights into the neural and molecular mechanisms by which social stimuli are perceived and translated into context-appropriate behavior in Burton’s mouthbrooder cichlid, Astatotilapia burtoni, which has become an important model system in social neuroscience. She continued her remarkable productivity after establishing her own laboratory at Louisiana State University. She was able to attract both funding and excellent trainees to conduct transformative research into the role of sex steroid hormones, nonapeptides, and various other neuroendocrine pathways in the integration of socially salient sensory information into adaptive behavior.

An important contribution of Karen’s research has been the focus on social transitions, when animals have an opportunity to ascend from a subordinate status to social dominance. We knew little about these dynamics, but thanks to Karen’s wonderful and thorough research we now have a good understanding of the physiological and neuromolecular consequences of social opportunity, and how these processes regulate brain function and behavior of the newly dominant animals. Another one of Karen’s important insights has been the realization that sensory tissues, such as retina and inner ear, are also very much subject to socially controlled neuroendocrine regulation, suggesting that individuals perceive the world around them very differently depending on their social status. Karen’s research, which was always guided by the animal’s natural behavior, beautifully integrated diverse approaches, different time scales, and levels of biological organization.

Not surprisingly, Karen received numerous awards for her excellence in both research and mentoring, such as an NIH NRSA Postdoctoral Fellowship, both the Rising Faculty Research Award and later the Faculty Excellence Award by the LSU Alumni Association, the highly prestigious LSU Rainmaker-Emerging Scholar Award, an LSU Tiger Athletic Foundation Undergraduate Teaching Award, and an NSF CAREER award, among many more.

Karen was a force of nature in the lab and beyond. Even during her increasingly difficult battle with cancer, she continued to support her students in every way possible. We still cannot believe that she is no longer with us, and we can only begin to grasp the void her death leaves in our community. To honor her memory, the Dr. Karen P. Maruska Graduate Support Fund has been established. You can donate here, if you are so inclined.

With an extremely heavy heart,

Julie Butler and Hans Hofmann