Dr. Jennifer Grandis is a Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, Director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and Associate Vice Chancellor of Clinical and Translational Research at the University of California, San Francisco. She is also an American Cancer Society Professor. Jennifer received her B.A. in Biology and Art History at Swarthmore College and was awarded her M.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She completed her residency and an Infectious Disease Fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and went on to serve on the faculty there for over 20 years before accepting her current position at UCSF. Jennifer has received many honors and awards during her career, including the Peggy Wheelock Award for Excellence in Research, Mentoring, and Promotion of Women in Science from the University of Nebraska, as well as the University of Pittsburgh’s Provost’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring, Philip Hench Distinguished Alumnus Award, Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award, Scientific Leadership Award, promotion to Distinguished Professor of Otolaryngology, and more. Jennifer is also an Elected Member of the Association of American Physicians, the American Society for Clinical Investigation, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Jennifer joined us in this interview to tell us all about her journey through life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (02:48)
Jennifer and her husband like to go running every morning with their dogs near their home in San Francisco. She makes sure to dedicate time in her day for reading, and she also listens to books on her phone when traveling. Reading and cooking are two activities that bring Jennifer great happiness.
The Scientific Side (04:10)
Jennifer is a Cancer Biologist as well as a head and neck surgeon. Her research revolves around understanding the key features of head and neck cancer that can be used to develop more effective treatments.
A Dose of Motivation (04:40)
Quotes aren’t a major source of motivation for Jennifer. Her strategy for staying motivated involves creating situations where she is in control. For Jennifer, being the rate-limiting step for making progress is great because then she doesn’t become frustrated by factors that she is not able to change.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (08:46)
As an undergraduate, Jennifer attended a small liberal arts college where she majored Art History (because she loved it) and Biology (because she thought it was practical). She then went to medical school (because she wanted to help people). Becoming a surgeon was appealing because it gave her the feeling of being able to cure people by cutting out bad things, but there were limitations to surgical approaches, particularly for cancer. Though she didn’t plan on becoming a scientist, Jennifer was motivated to begin working in the lab to try to solve the problems she was facing in the clinic.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (17:28)
Jennifer developed a gene therapy approach to treating cancer, but around the same time, there was a death at another institution and all gene therapy trials were stopped. Scientists had to re-test all the components of these treatments, and in examining their own experiments, Jennifer’s lab discovered a problem. The lab that made the gene for them got the wrong material, and her lab had been administering the (harmless and ineffective) control gene to participants, rather than the therapeutic gene. This was a major setback and she faced a lot of outrage from the public and other scientists.
A Shining Success! (20:50)
There was a big change in Jennifer’s laboratory approach when they started sequencing human tumors. In 2011, Jennifer and her collaborators published a high impact paper in the journal Science that talked about mutations in human head and neck cancer, and this was followed by a paper on The Cancer Genome Atlas Consortium published earlier this year in the journal Nature. Being a part of a team devoted to understanding cancer biology has been incredibly satisfying.
Book Recommendations (23:24)
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Most Treasured Travel (24:28)
Jennifer has brought her mother along as a travel companion on most of her journeys. One of her favorite memories is going to a conference in Barcelona. The city was beautiful, and this was a great meeting with a small number of excellent scientists in her field giving stimulating presentations. What was most memorable though was how everyone at the conference adopted her mother, taking her out to dinners and spending time with her.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (27:25)
Jennifer started baking cakes for everyone’s birthday in her lab and that worked out well when there weren’t many people in the lab. As the lab grew though, they reached a point where she was baking a cake nearly every week. They had to put a stop to the birthday cake tradition, but found other ways to have fun, including exploring the city together.
Advice For Us All (31:43)
Get to know yourself. Know who you are, what your capacities are, and what makes you happy. Make sure on regular basis you do the things that make you happy, because if you are happy, everything else is tolerable. Also, accept imperfection. You will particularly have to do this if you want to do it all.
In her capacity of Associate Vice Chancellor, Jennifer oversees clinical trials infrastructure and spearheads initiatives to strengthen and streamline clinical and translational research on campus. Prior to joining UCSF, she was the Endowed Chair in Head and Neck Cancer Surgical Research and Distinguished Professor of Otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh. At Pittsburgh, she also led the Head and Neck Cancer Program and was the Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Otolaryngology. Jennifer’s research focuses on the signal transduction in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) development and progression, with the ultimate goal of targeting key pathways for therapeutic benefit. She is responsible for a number of patents in this area and has published extensively on the topic of head and neck cancer. Additional research interests include precision medicine approaches, experimental therapeutics, preclinical cancer models and receptor crosstalk.
*This episode was originally published on September 4, 2015.