Five questions with BJ Bormann

An interview with JAX VP for Translational Science and Network Alliances BJ Bormann

When did you become interested in science?

I was a rotten kid. I actually had a truancy issue in middle and high school, hanging around with the wrong crowd and so on. Science was the only thing that was interesting to me: chemistry and biology, and I loved calculus and higher math. Things like English and history, Shakespeare, blah, blah, blah, I could not care less.

I skipped my senior year of high school and entered Fairfield University in Connecticut when I was only 16. It was an intensive biology program, with a lot of chemistry, physics and calculus as well as biology. That first semester of biology was botany, which I found a real snooze-fest. I just hated it. But the second semester was zoology, and to this day I still have all these ridiculous factoids in my brain about how spider lungs are similar to horseshoe crab lungs, and how lagomorphs are different from rodentia and so on.  I liked the lab exercises associated with the course, and the microscope work. And I was relieved to be moving to topics that were more relevant to the human condition, such as physiology and histology.

For my Ph.D., I went to the UConn Health Center, which is right up the hill from JAX Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Conn. It was a remarkable program geared to M.D., Ph.D. and D.D.S. candidates. So we did all the coursework with the medical and dental students, including gross anatomy—I had to do eight hours of autopsy work. And I loved it. And when the medical students and dental students went into clinics, we went into a laboratory to learn how to run experiments, work with animals and so on.

This was in the department of pathology—we were studying immunology but that was only just emerging as a separate field. If you were interested in immunology, you were usually in a pathology department or a microbiology department or a biochemistry department because that just didn't exist on its own. So I was always close to the slides, the cadavers, the forensics and so on. So that's how I ended up in immunology, and never looked back. I have enjoyed every day of it.

Did you have female mentors during your undergraduate years?

None. None whatsoever. There was not even a female on the faculty in the department of pathology at the time. I was good friends with a woman I worked with, Paula Dore-Duffy, but I wouldn’t say she was really a mentor. And there were other female graduate students, and there were female postdocs, but many of them, after getting married and having babies, didn’t come back. They dropped out. This was in the early ‘80s, and it was still a male-dominated field.

Did you have any major setbacks in your training or career?

After the first year of the graduate program, I realized that I hadn't spent enough time in the laboratory. I would read a scientific paper in which the investigators used PCR, or cloning technologies, or electrophoresis, and I didn't know what those things meant or how they actually worked and what you could learn from them. So as I continued my coursework, I decided to take a lab tech position for about 18 months, just so I could learn how to do things. This was controversial; I’d hear people say, “What’s this woman doing? Is she really committed to getting her degree?” But my doctoral mentor stood up for my decision. That lab tech experience transformed me, because now I had the base of knowledge that allowed me to figure out how to conduct research. And I still graduated with my doctorate before I was 25, which was a goal of mine for some reason.

What is your current role?

I’m vice president of JAX for translational science and network alliances, and that means identifying new business opportunities that arise from our research and development strategies. I'm not a researcher any longer, and it's probably hard for me to even call myself a real scientist any longer—I think if I went into a laboratory and tried to do something, I'd be dangerous. But I get to see all the science, try to figure out what's really ready for the next step, whether a pharma would be interested in it, whether a biotech would be interested in it. And I've also been able to incorporate in a pretty intensive but focused study of the law as it relates to contracts.

My work is at the intersection of law, common sense, drug development, drug discovery and just basic science. It's one of the most fascinating jobs I could have ever imagined, because it really draws on everything that I’ve ever worked on. And there are always multiple projects to work on. I depend on the scientists themselves because I’m not the expert in their fields—they are. You have to be willing to admit you know nothing or next to nothing, and ask them to give you the Sesame Street version of their work, so that I can help advance their work.

Here’s an example of what I do. Dr. Simon John had made the amazing discovery at JAX that Vitamin B3 actually prevents glaucoma in mice that are genetically predisposed to the eye disease. But taking this to the next level—organizing clinical trials, connecting with pharmaceutical and ophthalmology companies—was stalled.

I sat down with Simon, our patent counsel and people at Columbia University Medical School and ophthalmology department, and we decided we needed to prove that the treatment works in people as well as mice. So we designed a small study, with only about 30 patients, but it was placebo-controlled. And the treatment ended up working really well. Now we’re looking at setting up a company to house this invention and license the intellectual property from JAX, and find a manufacturing partner. And because this vitamin is considered a food product and not a drug, we avoid many regulatory and production hurdles. So now we are moving forward to bring a new and effective treatment to people who are dealing with glaucoma.

What is the culture at JAX for women?

What impressed me immediately at JAX was the presence of strong women in positions of leadership, including scientific director Nadia Rosenthal and COO Katy Longley, and a whole host of fantastic women scientists. What’s most impressive is that they don’t have to push to be seen or heard; they are seen and heard. It's really an incredible culture. It's the most polite, respectful group of people I have ever had the opportunity to work with in 30 years.

What career advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in science?

Think about what you like, and listen to your gut. At some point you may decide you need to go your own way, to deviate from this nice linear career pathway for a little bit, but it's going to make you a better person. You'll know when you're struggling. You'll know when you're not really accelerating down that path where you should. And not everybody's path is the same. Even as a young person, your instincts are important. And what you like to do and what you don't like to do are really important, so believe in yourself in that regard. Have confidence in your own instincts. Don't listen to anybody else.

When I went on to get a Ph.D., I was told by many friends, “Ph.D.s are dime a dozen. Why are you doing that?” For me, it was the right thing to do. And I'm glad I didn't listen to anybody else because it's what I wanted to do. It's what I needed to do for myself.