by Trish Adkins
According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, less than 30-percent of the world’s scientific researchers are women. As the world works to narrow the gender gap, women researchers are working on cures for childhood cancer—both in the lab and the clinic.
In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month in March, meet five women leading the way to cures for childhood cancer:
Being a researcher is not a 9-5 job, but Dr. Catherine Flores from the University of Florida works to find a balance between her life as a mom to a 3-year-old and her life searching for cures for brain tumors.
An ALSF Young Investigator grantee, Dr. Flores studied the preclinical development of adoptive cell therapy to fight high-grade gliomas, a category of pediatric brain tumors with particularly poor survival rates. Her work led to a phase 1 immunotherapy clinical trial for relapsed brain tumors. Dr. Flores said she used the hours between bedtime and sunrise to get grant writing done—and the working hours to be in the lab leading her team to discovery.
“I never realized that there aren’t many women in science until my first faculty appointment. I am one of only two tenure-track female faculty members in my department,” said Dr. Flores
As a young trainee, many people gave Dr. Michelle Monje, ASLF grantee from Stanford University the (unsolicited) advice that one cannot have a big career in medicine or science and also have children.
She ignored the advice. Dr. Monje (mother of four) is getting closer everyday to a breakthrough in the treatment of DIPG, a pediatric brain tumor with a zero-percent cure rate.
Dr. Monje credits her success navigating male-dominated science and motherhood with asking for what she needed—time and space to pump milk at work, meeting times that did not conflict with daycare pick-ups and also doing things that were a little bit taboo.
“I routinely traveled with my nursing baby and my mother as a caregiver, while my husband was home with the other kids, when I attended conferences or scientific meetings. Once I was giving a talk with an infant sleeping in the baby carrier strapped to my torso,” said Dr. Monje, “Young scientists and doctors who are new parents are busy enough without needing to figure out the basic logistics necessary to get through each day.”
Dr. Jennifer Foster, an ALSF Center of Excellence Scholar at Texas Children’s Hospital, knows that science does not have the full story for most types of cancer. But, she is working to fill in the blanks.
Three years ago, the pathology of a tumor that was found in the leg of a 10-year-old girl, landed on Dr. Foster’s desk. The tumor was nothing anyone had ever seen before. Dr. Foster immediately turned to the research to find a treatment plan for the girl, Eden Green. Eden enrolled in a trial that Dr. Foster was leading.
“Every piece of knowledge we gain from rare tumors like ‘Eden’s tumor’ will build and help guide us in future treatment decisions for other children; just like how the knowledge has guided us to this point of being able to help Eden,” said Dr. Foster.
For as long as John Hopkins University student and ALSF 2016 Pediatric Oncology Student Training (POST) grantee Sabrina Wang can remember, she’s wanted to be a scientist. Sabrina spent one summer working with ALSF researchers Drs. Eric Raabe, Charles Eberhart and Jeffrey Rubens at Johns Hopkins.
Part of her research work involved the ability to see the clinical side of research and the tangible impact of research on the lives of real patients.
During Sabrina’s second day of shadowing in the oncology clinic, her mentor asked a parent how a standard chemotherapy treatment had gone. Coincidentally, the treatment was also a drug that Sabrina had investigated in the lab.
“The connection between research and what it meant for patients suddenly fell into place for me,” said Sabrina of that moment.
Dr. Jean Mulcahy-Levy, of the University of Colorado Denver, has come a long way from her days studying the behavior of fruit bats and teaching children at a local zoo. Today, Dr. Mulcahy-Levy is studying how a typical cellular process called autophagy could be a key to stopping the atypical growth of cancer cells in children with relapsed brain tumors. Her work has been published and continues to lay the foundation for more research into curing brain tumors.
Dr. Mulcahy-Levy credits her success in research with having the mentorship and support of other scientists. Her first mentor, Dr. Becky Houck at the University of Portland, fueled her passion for biology.
“After the mentorship of my first strong female example of a scientist, I’ve never looked back,” said Dr. Mulcahy-Levy.
In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8 and Women’s History month, ALSF will feature interviews with some of our outstanding funded women researchers on the ALSF blog all month long. Next week, meet Jaclyn Taroni, PhD, data scientist at the ALSF Childhood Cancer Data Lab who is working to build tools and analyzing data in order to find cures for childhood cancer.