Dr. Jennifer Wargo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Surgical Oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and a Stand Up To Cancer researcher. She received her A.S. degree in nursing and B.S. degree in biology from Gwynedd-Mercy College. Afterwards, Jennifer attended the Medical College of Pennsylvania where she earned her M.D. Jennifer completed her Clinical Internship and Residency in General Surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. Next, Jennifer was a Research Fellow in Surgical Oncology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She then accepted a Clinical Residency in General Surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. From 2006-2008, Jennifer was a Clinical Fellow in Surgical Oncology at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health. She then served on the faculty at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University. In 2012, Jennifer received her MMSc. degree in Medical Science from Harvard University. Jennifer joined the faculty at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in 2013. She is Board Certified by the American Board of Surgery, and she has received numerous awards and honors throughout her career. These have included the R. Lee Clark Prize and Best Boss Award from the MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Rising STARS and The Regents’ Health Research Scholars Awards from the University of Texas System, the Outstanding Young Investigator and Outstanding Investigator Awards from the Society for Melanoma Research, as well as a Stand Up To Cancer Innovative Research Grant for her microbiome work. She has also received other awards for excellence in teaching, research, and patient care. In our interview, Jennifer shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (3:03)
When she’s not doing research or treating patients, Jennifer enjoys spending quality time with her family. Some of their favorite activities include going for walks, biking, hiking, and visiting the beach. Jennifer also likes to explore her creative side through art and photography, as well as to be active through running, biking, yoga, and surfing.
The Scientific Side (4:31)
Jennifer is a physician scientist, and this means she splits her time between providing care to patients and doing research to find better ways of treating disease. Specifically, Jennifer performs surgeries and treats patients one day each week. She spends the rest of her week studying how to better treat patients with cancer and how cancer may ultimately be prevented.
A Dose of Motivation (5:37)
“If I have seen further, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton
What Got You Hooked on Science? (6:12)
Throughout her childhood and into high school, Jennifer was interested in art, science, and patient care. Jennifer’s mother was a nurse, and her father was a math teacher, so she grew up in an environment where she was encouraged to learn more and to help people. Jennifer recalls accompanying her mom on visits to see patients, and she was inspired by these interactions with patients. After high school, Jennifer pursued a degree in nursing and then worked for a few years as a nurse. While Jennifer enjoyed her career, she wanted to learn more about the science underlying diseases provide better treatments. With encouragement from a mentor, Jennifer applied to medical school. During medical school, she became interested in the immune system and the interactions between surgery and the immune system. Jennifer had the opportunity to work with patients with cancer during her residency, and these patients really inspired her. These elements led her to pursue research on the interface between the immune system and cancer.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (14:57)
Some of the most interesting results are unexpected. Jennifer previously conducted studies on pancreatic cancer and colon cancer to better understand why these types of cancer are highly resistant to chemotherapy. She and her colleagues were studying isolated cancer cells and treating them in the lab with chemotherapy drugs. One of the types of cells they were working with was infected with a type of bacteria that was breaking down the chemotherapy drugs. They were initially frustrated because they believed their experiments had become contaminated and that the data were not useful. However, when experiments don’t go as expected, it’s important to look deeper into why they didn’t work. Jennifer and her team began to wonder if a similar phenomenon might be happening inside the tumors of patients in real life. They have since confirmed multiple cases where tumors include bacteria and viruses that may contribute to cancer formation as well as resistance to chemotherapy.
A Shining Success! (20:04)
Over the years, Jennifer has had many wonderful people work in her lab, and it is rewarding to know that some of them are now leading their own research efforts. This has been an important success for Jennifer. In addition, seeing other research groups learn from her team’s studies and launch their own studies on the gut microbiome has been really exciting. Beyond academic impacts, it has been remarkable to watch the broader community becoming more interested in diet, the gut microbiome, and health as a result of the research they and others have done.
Book Recommendations (22:28)
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
Most Treasured Travel (23:23)
Dr. Jim Allison has been a great mentor to Jennifer, and she was honored to be among the guests he invited to travel with him to Stockholm, Sweden to witness the awarding of his Nobel Prize. Jim is an amazing, down-to-earth person, and he has helped change the lives of many patients through his groundbreaking work on immunotherapy. About 50 people accompanied Jim to Stockholm for the Nobel Ceremony, including fellow cancer researchers and the first patient who was cured with his immunotherapy treatments. It was wonderful to celebrate with everyone, and it was fun to attend the Nobel NightCap party afterwards and meet the other Nobel Laureates.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (29:23)
For Jennifer, it is really important to share the results of their research with her patients and to convey how their contributions are helping advance the field of cancer research. In addition, she makes sure to show her appreciation for her lab members when they are ready to graduate and move on to new opportunities. A student that recently finished his PhD was gifted a cowboy hat decorated with a poop emoji. Due to the nature of their gut microbiome research, there are a lot of poop emojis in the lab, and they even made lab t-shirts sporting the design.
Advice For Us All (33:20)
Love what you do. Try to find something that you love. If you do, it won’t feel like work. We all have a great ability and opportunity to make a big impact on this world. Seize that opportunity.
Dr. Wargo’s career commitment is to advance the understanding and treatment of disease through science. After completing her Medical Degree, she entered surgical residency training at the Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts where she became interested in the biology and treatment of cancer. During her training, she completed two fellowships in Surgical Oncology with a focus on immunotherapy for cancer. Jennifer was recruited to the Division of Surgical Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital in July 2008 and had an active research laboratory focusing on melanoma tumorigenesis and immunotherapy for cancer. In September 2013, Jennifer was recruited by University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to help lead the Melanoma Moon Shot program. She is currently an Associate Professor of Surgical Oncology and Genomic Medicine, and she has continued her critical research to better understand responses to therapy and to develop novel strategies to combat resistance. This includes her groundbreaking recent work elucidating the role of the gut microbiome in shaping responses to immunotherapy in patients with melanoma – with a manuscript describing this work published in Science. She is recognized internationally as a leader in cancer research, and is leading innovative efforts globally.