Marian Carlson received her A.B. from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Stanford University. After postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1981 she joined the faculty at Columbia University, where she was a professor of genetics and development, now emerita, and also served as senior associate dean and vice dean for research. Her laboratory used genetic analysis in yeast to identify and elucidate conserved mechanisms of signal transduction and transcriptional regulation, notably the SNF1/AMPK protein kinase pathway and the SWI-SNF chromatin remodeling complex. In 2008, she took a leave of absence to serve as a senior scientific officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She joined the Simons Foundation in 2010.
Carlson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Microbiology, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is a past president of the Genetics Society of America, and she received the 2009 Genetics Society of America Medal.