Women x Women: Health & Science Powered by Women
Women leaders and scientists at The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) gathered virtually on March 18th for the Laboratory’s inaugural event, which garnered an audience of over 250. Panelists discussed the unique health issues that females face, the historic contributions of women in science and how JAX is shaping the next generation of leaders.
Connecticut Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz opened the event with a video message, citing JAX’s long history of creating opportunity for women in STEM in Connecticut, Maine, California and most recently, internationally in China. “The determination and focus that JAX has for conducting women-specific health research is vital to the longevity of women everywhere,” she said.
Bysiewicz, who serves as chair of the Governor’s Council on Women and Girls, said one of her top priorities is to get more young women of all backgrounds to pursue STEM careers, because while women make up over half of all jobs in the US economy, they hold only 25% of jobs in STEM. “We must work to change that through mentorship, educational and leadership programs and initiatives,” she said.
Among the many , when the Laboratory was founded in 1929, the scientific staff of eight included Elizabeth Fekete. In 1935, she conducted the first successful transfer of fertilized ova, and in 1936 she was among the JAX researchers who announced the first link between cancer and viruses in mammals.
“We must acknowledge those who were trailblazers before us and recognize some of the women who not only shaped JAX’s history, but have served at critical moments in science,” noted , J.D., executive vice president and chief operating officer, during her opening remarks.
“These are critically important women with strong voices who in turn have given JAX a strong voice in the scientific community.”
Exploring women’s health conditions
The first session of the event was a guided panel discussion among JAX's senior leaders, faculty members, and rising stars, highlighting their cutting-edge programs for specific women's health conditions, including cancers and reproductive disorders.
The key to finding cures for these conditions, said , M.D., Ph.D., professor and associate director of cancer immunology, is more basic research - through the interface between basic research and the clinic, and through the interface between studies in patients and mouse models.
Palucka, who also serves as deputy director of the , conducts research to understand how vaccines work and to define precisely the immune mechanisms that underlie vaccination, with a focus on cancer immunotherapies. “It cannot be only immunologists, it cannot be only oncologists, it cannot be only data science people. There has to be this melting pot of expertise. And I think that's what The Jackson Laboratory is about, and that's what our JAX Cancer Center is about,” she explained. “We want to bring young people, young scientists, people that want to invest in this field and think broadly and differently than we do. It's very critical that we have this different thinking, different approaches that are going to come together.”
Assistant professor , Ph.D., also drove home the importance of using mice in her research. Bolcun-Filas investigates the genetic causes of infertility and the development of new treatments for preserving healthy ovarian function and fertility in female cancer survivors. “As you probably know from biology classes, women are born with all the eggs we'll ever have, so they are a precious resource,” she said. “We can't necessarily easily have access to women's ovaries and eggs. So we are using one of the best models, the most efficient. We can test different strategies using mice. We also have wonderful resources of mice that are genetically unique or that are genetically similar to human populations.”
She said by testing which mice are more sensitive or more resistant to toxic treatments, researchers may be able to predict which cancer patients may be at risk of adverse reproductive issues later in their lives. “Mice provide us with a great platform to do the first step, and once we can test whether it's safe and whether it's efficient, we can start thinking about translating this to human research,” she said.
Research scientist Elise Courtois, Ph.D., focuses on one of the causes of infertility in women: endometriosis. Endometriosis arises when tissue that usually lines the inside of the uterus — the endometrium — grows outside of the womb, creating complex ectopic lesions. The endometrium-like lesions are painful and can severely affect the quality of life. At JAX, she is working to understand exactly what the mechanisms are that control the establishment and the growth of those lesions in the peritoneum and in the ovaries by using single-cell technologies. “We want to understand the basics of endometriosis in order to bring it to the clinical field and have a better understanding of how we can treat or diagnose this disease,” she said.
“The most exciting part of this research is that it's affecting 10% of other women in their reproductive age, and yet we know very little about it,” said Courtois. “I believe that every scientific contribution has a capacity to make a great impact in the patient's life. We need everything from understanding the basic mechanism, the utility of the disease, to finding new biomarkers that allow women to get a proper diagnosis quickly, instead of waiting for so many years.”
Supporting the next generation of women scientists
During the second session of the event, , Ph.D., FMedSci, FAAHMS, who serves as scientific director and professor at The Jackson Laboratory for Mammalian Genetics, and computational scientist , Ph.D., discussed their paths to scientific careers, mentorship, the projects that excite them the most, and the most important characteristics that make them the scientists and women that they are today.
Rosenthal, who comes from a family of artists but was drawn to science through a biochemistry class at age 15, says resolve is required for a career in science.
“It means to decide firmly on a course of action to make up one's mind and to keep a firm determination,” she said. “And I say that because science is a landmine of failure, you have a 10% chance of getting the right answer the first time. And it requires a sense that ‘This is not something that I can't do, this is not something that I'm going to let get me down.’
Rosenthal was inspired by an early mentor to infuse an ethos of transparency and collaboration into all of her work, including her leadership role at JAX. She recently initiated a new program at the Laboratory, working with faculty to by humanizing genetically diverse mouse strains to better reflect the dramatic differences in patient responses to the virus. “We now have this group we call ‘the COVID mousers’ and they are wonderful. They come up with these amazing, interesting ideas,” she said. “And let's face it, having 20 or 30 people voluntarily trolling the literature for new data is one of the best ways to get forward in research.”
Goldfeder encouraged others in the audience to consider their peers as mentors: “I really I think the best mentorship relationships are the informal ones. It's the one where you meet someone and you teach each other and you grow together. I think that's something that's really valuable and under-appreciated.” She founded the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) group at the Laboratory, which focuses on professional and personal development, community-building, networking and outreach.
“Our mission is entirely about supporting and bolstering women in science,” she said. “We do outreach events with elementary, middle, high school and college students to try to teach them something, to introduce them to genetics when maybe they haven't heard of it. Helping them to see that this is a career that they could be in, is really exciting.”