A Welcome Letter from Michael P. Nusbaum, PhD
Welcome to The Dish, a behind-the-scenes look at the science and people of Penn BGS. This is a great new opportunity to connect with you—the thriving, growing, and innovative BGS family—as we approach our historic 30th anniversary. It’s a wonderful time to celebrate our accomplishments in scientific discovery and translational (“bench to bedside”) research, as well as the successful career trajectories of our many BGS alums.
Over the past 30 years, our BGS graduates have made very good use of their training. More than 98% of them are employed, and many have risen to prominence in academic, private-sector, and governmental organizations. They are award-winners, entrepreneurs, and policy-makers. It’s inspiring and entertaining to see where life has taken all of them. Your BGS experience connects you to all of these professionals, and this network continues to thrive and grow. For example, the work of our current students and their advisors is regularly showcased in leading biomedical journals, many of our students obtain pre-doctoral fellowships from the NIH or NSF, and each year a subset of them receive meritorious recognition for their research from outside organizations as well as within Penn.
These connections are precious today. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins recently said, “While the scientific opportunities have never been more exciting than right now, the stress on the biomedical community in the U.S. has never been more severe.”
Nowhere are funding challenges felt more acutely than in educating and training the next generation of researchers—a subject near and dear to me. Endowed fellowships are becoming the lifeline for filling the gap once effectively covered by federal funding and, because this is a limited resource, there is a fierce competition to obtain those philanthropic dollars.
I am counting on your help to spread the word on the critical role of young scientists, and of the considerable value provided by training programs like Penn BGS, in advancing the next great biomedical breakthroughs. With this in mind, the stories told here in “The Dish” are meant to be shared, not only with your scientific colleagues, but also with friends, family, neighbors, philanthropists, journalists, and funding agencies.
By engaging minds and making new connections with the right partners, we can keep the pipeline of new talent flowing for years to come and ensure that Penn BGS remains the premier biomedical graduate education program in the nation.
With our 30th anniversary right around the corner, the entire BGS family has much to celebrate. Please mark your calendars for October 8-10, 2015: We hope that all BGS alums will return to campus to join in the party and reconnect with our faculty, fellow alumni, and students. I’ll be back in touch soon to share with you our developing plans for celebrating our anniversary.
I think it’s very fitting that our anniversary comes on the heels of the Perelman School of Medicine’s 250th, as our nation is reminded of the tremendous impact Penn has made on American medicine. Come celebrate your part in that tradition with us!
Please enjoy The Dish, have a fabulous fall season, and I hope we get to hear from you soon!
Until we meet again, happy trails to you!
Michael P. Nusbaum, PhD
Professor, Department of Neuroscience
Director, Biomedical Graduate Studies
Blossom Damania, GR’98: Researching Tiny Viruses to Uncover Big Answers
How can a tiny virus commandeer much larger cells to form cancerous tumors? This question has driven Blossom A. Damania, GR’98, to develop one of the largest and most prestigious viral cancer labs in the country.
Damania, Professor and Assistant Dean of Research at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine, first found viral cancers fascinating while earning her doctorate from BGS in the lab of James C. Alwine, PhD. “I learned a lot of techniques there because Jim gave me free rein,” she says. “Most importantly, I learned how to think scientifically and how to ask the right questions.”
Asking the right questions and knowing how to find the answers has led Damania and her colleagues to uncover critical components of Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus, or KSHV. Two decades ago, the virus was discovered to be the cause of Kaposi’s sarcoma, the often fatal, AIDS-defining illness, as well as of lymphomas that primarily affect patients with suppressed immune systems. Like the seven other identified herpes viruses, KSHV usually remains dormant in people, making it difficult to study. In a groundbreaking paper published last year, Damania’s lab described, for the first time, the cellular factors that keep KSHV in hiding—finally opening new avenues for developing treatments and cures.
In the years since leaving Penn, undertaking post-graduate work at Harvard University and joining the UNC faculty, Damania has seen profound changes in research. “New technologies have really helped accelerate discoveries,” she says. “At the same time, there has been a tremendous emphasis on moving these discoveries from the bench to the bedside. The combination has been great for society. Most of the drugs people take every day, most of the medical devices we use, these came out of this country.”
Those future treatments, Damania recognizes, will increasingly be needed in places where they are not currently available. The World Health Organization estimates that 70 percent of cancer cases will occur in low to middle income countries by 2030. Damania co-founded UNC’s Global Oncology Program, which runs clinics in Brazil, Malawi, India, and China, where few people undergo cancer screening.
“We’re working to introduce better screening in the clinics and to enter patients into clinical trials when possible,” she says. “But we’re also performing translational research in collaboration with physician scientists in these countries that ultimately will benefit patients throughout the world.”
“It’s important to keep our focus on basic discovery,” she says. “KSHV was discovered only two decades ago, and—as I learned at BGS and have found in my own lab—just answering a simple question could give you a lot of answers that might be pivotal for translation to the clinic in another 10 years.”
Shaun O’Brien, G’13, Practices a More Political Science
When he began his PhD in immunology, Shaun O’Brien, G’13, assumed he was leaving his political science background behind. But with the current NIH funding crisis, his divergent academic interests have proven the perfect fit.
“Over the course of my doctoral studies, I heard from both young career scientists and established scientists about how dwindling federal funding was downsizing their research laboratories—or even driving them out of science,” O’Brien said. “But no one seemed to be really doing anything about it. I saw a science policy group as a great opportunity to step up to the plate and fill that void.”
In 2013, O’Brien and fellow PhD candidate Mike Allegrezza, GR’17, co-founded the Penn Science Policy Group (PSPG), bringing together graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to advocate for public support of science. PSPG members challenge widespread perceptions of science as irrelevant and fiscally wasteful—with the knowledge that their careers may hang in the balance.
Their outreach efforts include launching a science policy blog and attending the April 2013 rally on Capitol Hill to support medical research. PSPG members have made multiple trips to Washington, DC, to meet with legislators including Pennsylvania Senators Bob Casey (D) and Pat Toomey (R). The group has also brought congressional staffers to Penn to see firsthand what taxpayer dollars make possible.
“It’s been scratching my political science itch,” said O’Brien, who majored in both immunology and political science at UC Berkeley. “Cultivating that perspective I had in college.”
“Government officials and laypeople think basic science is not as sexy as medical research because it’s not directly disease-related or cure-driven,” O’Brien said. “But you need to communicate to them that is where the discovery happens, and where you start thinking about the implications of that discovery.”
He has used his own experience as a powerful example. Today, as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Steven M. Albelda, MD, O’Brien works to improve the effectiveness of cancer immunotherapy, which trains an individual’s immune system to fight cancer. When O’Brien began this line of investigation as a PhD student in the laboratory of Andrew D. Wells, PhD, a little more than five years ago, it had “no real implication for cancer treatment. That’s the progression the general public needs to hear and understand.”
Meanwhile, decreased funding continues to shape – and perhaps diversify – career paths for BGS grads. O’Brien was struck by the versatility and value of a Penn PhD when he organized networking events that featured alumni in alternative careers ranging from consulting to finance.
“If we’re going to counter the changing funding landscape, then our main goal is to make the most of our BGS alumni connections to get the word out,” O’Brien said. “Being in a research lab is very time-intensive, and we don’t always do a great job being outside that bubble. As members of the BGS community, we need to improve our outreach, both to advance our careers and ensure the future of biomedical research.”
Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics:
Dr. George W. Raiziss 31st Annual Retreat
November 20-21, 2014
Skytop Lodge in the Pocono Mountains
*sponsored by the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics and the Graduate Group in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics.
For more information, contact Ruth Keris at firstname.lastname@example.org.