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One on One with... Beverly Emerson

Beverly Emerson

Enormous fossils in glass gases and a duo of plastic dinosaurs adorn biologist Beverly Emerson’s study at the Salk Institute. Though the décor may seem unrelated to Emerson’s study of processes that underlie cancer, the fossils and dinosaurs have common themes with the deadly disease: evolution and diversity in nature.

Rather than viewing tumors as originating from a single mutated cell that goes awry, Emerson looks at how cancer develops its own diverse “society” (a tumor) that is stubbornly resistant to threats such as chemotherapy.

Emerson came to the Salk Institute in 1987, where she has made seminal discoveries showing how enzymes can remodel chromosomes in normal cells or how this process goes awry to allow cancer to thrive. Her current efforts are focused on combating early cancers (such as breast cancer) and managing the cellular diversity that is required for drug resistance in established tumors. Emerson also has a personal interest in health, particularly around the philosophy of food and self care.

What was your path to becoming a scientist?

When I was young, I wasn’t interested in science. I wanted to be a boxer or an artist. My dad was both, as well as a diesel mechanic, but I never quite grasped how engines worked. Instead, I was my father’s sparring partner. Due to Dad’s excellent coaching, I retired undefeated at age 8!

After retiring from the ring, I continued my artistic endeavors by painting and wood carving. As an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, a class on molecular biology riveted my attention to science, saving me from a career as a mediocre artist. I was struck by the elegance of how genes were regulated and the logic of transcriptional and biological circuitry, like a machine itself. Those concepts have hooked me ever since.

My dad taught his children to be freethinking and not tolerate bullying, while my mom was very optimistic and thought everything was possible. Each parent had a great sense of humor and neither liked hierarchy. I carried these traits into science: follow your own path and don’t look for others’ approval, as well as a belief that everything will work out, even if there are long downtimes for experiments to succeed.

Do you feel a connection between art and science?

Every successful scientist I know is also highly creative in an artistic way. The best scientists see not only the importance and significance of what they’re doing, but also the beauty of it. It doesn’t have to be uncovering a major principle. Just finally understanding a small question or achieving a little yet vexing technical feat has a beauty to it.

People think of science as being very dry, but meticulous and repetitious experiments are the medium scientists have to use: it is their particular paintbrush or musical instrument. When you make a discovery, the beauty of it is thrilling. They call that the “aha” moment, but it’s more than that. There’s a sense of the aesthetic in one’s discovery and in nature.

Why is cancer so drug resistant?

When we keep challenging cells without killing all of them with one chemotherapy drug, cancer develops a specific mechanism to survive. This is like if a town has a flood every week–eventually, the survivors adapt and learn to become expert swimmers. Now, if you’re hit with unexpected threats–for cells, a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs, or for people, a natural disaster–there are usually still some that remain because cells and people are diverse in their capabilities to maximize survival.

We liken drug resistance to evolution. Our studies and those of others show that nature has programmed cells to be diverse to ensure survival in harsh conditions. I had trouble wrapping my head around this because, while there is beauty in nature striving for life at every level, drug-resistant metastatic cancer cells are our enemy. Somehow, nature is not distinguishing between the driving force for normal cells versus cancer cells to survive.

How are cancer cells like “angry, ostracized people?”

A simple way to think about cancer is that it starts from a single, mutated cell that takes on a life of its own and begins to metastasize. But perhaps a more accurate view is that cancer exists as part of a community within a larger ecosystem. A damaged cell can sit in your body forever and never wreak havoc. It’s when the relationship between one cell and its community breaks down that the formation of tumors begins.

Some of the first genes to go awry in cancer are those that control the ability of cells to contact each other, called cell adhesion. Now, if you’re a stressed cell and lose contact with your neighbors, you have a very different relationship with your environment. Like an angry person that’s been ostracized from a community, that cell forgets its social contract in a sense and begins to act erratically.

One area of cancer that we do not understand that relates to this “community” of the body is the higher-order communication between our overall physiology and control of metastasis. Some patients with cancer, for example, simply waste away (cachexia), as if the higher-order operating system had made the calculation for the body to give up. This mind-body relationship to one’s health is a poorly understood area but worth exploring.

How do you de-stress?

I love to snorkel in Cancun and recently tried the flying trapeze–it was a lot of fun. I enjoy travel, from eating a giant gelato in Italy, hiking in New Zealand, getting a camel kiss in Jordan and riding a yak in the Himalayas. At home, I regularly cycle, go to the gym and take our large, loveable but unruly dogs hiking in nearby canyons as a courtesy to our neighbors.

Aside from those activities, I have recently focused on a holistic approach to food in the last few years. What started as a scientific interest in reading all the strange stuff listed on food labels and seriously wondering how this was affecting my epigenome grew into an ethical philosophy for me.

When did you start to think more deeply about food and consumption? On a trip to D.C. about ten years ago, I walked by a poster that opened my eyes to the conditions in which factory farm-raised animals are kept. That was an epiphany for me and greatly raised my compassion and awareness about the connection between ethical treatment of animals, contamination-laced produce, artificial foods and diet-based human disease. I never thought I’d be interested in food books, but I started to read about corporate-controlled food politics in books like What to Eat by Marion Nestle and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.

I also was inspired by French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano whose central message is to give yourself lots of variety, take the time to buy and prepare only the best stuff, and bother to put a flower on the table just for you. In this way, grocery shopping can become a reflection of a life philosophy.

In the end, we still don’t understand why some people are able to overcome disease–like cancer–and others don’t. We rely on our bodies to take care of ourselves so we must treat our bodies with respect.

You’ve mentored dozens of young scientists. What knowledge do you try to impart to them?

Being a mentor has been both my greatest joy and my greatest frustration. You see some people who have intelligence and work hard, but are held back from reaching their full potential by fear: either fear of failure or of peer review upon completion of their project. It’s a given that to be a successful scientist you need several traits: intelligence, dedication, perseverance, optimism, willingness to accept criticism. You quickly learn as an advisor that the best people have all of these qualities and I am just cultivating them for that extra mile.

My own mentors–Peter Geiduschek from when I was a UCSD undergraduate, Robert Roeder during my graduate work at Washington University and Gary Felsenfeld from my postdoctoral studies at the NIH–were almost as important to me as my parents in influencing my growth and development.

You’ve given several talks on women in science. What are your thoughts on the landscape today?

I think things are better for women and minorities, but the culture still needs to improve. In general, it’s easy to be generous to a person junior to you, but the glass ceiling really comes into play when women reach higher levels. At these levels, the more enlightened leaders willingly step aside and remove barriers to elevate qualified and deserving individuals who are underrepresented. The “boys’ club” culture at a professional level is an embarrassing anachronism.

My advice to women scientists is not to put up with the glass ceiling. If your institute or company isn’t providing you with opportunities for fair advancement, go to another organization. Sometimes–and this is the case for all scientists–you have to take a step back from the daily grind of grants and papers to look at the system you operate in and see if it’s good for you and serves your best interests.

Any parting thoughts to living the life of a scientist?

In my own experience, I can delineate three stages to becoming a scientist. The first is embracing the culture: I observed as a naive undergraduate in Dr. Geiduschek’s lab how no sacrifice was too great for the good of one’s experiment. I was very impressed by the dedication of people who routinely came back to the lab at 2 a.m. to optimize their experiment.

The second phase of becoming a scientist is as a graduate student, when you are becoming a journeyman who masters the craft of being an accomplished experimentalist. This often requires doing things over and over for years to learn to solve a problem rigorously.

Thirdly, once you’ve mastered your craft, you develop self-confidence and judgment. Not only can you do the experiments at this point, you can figure out which problems are worth exploring. As a postdoc at the NIH and later a faculty member, I learned to trust and follow my passion.

Ultimately, living the life of a scientist has been a wonderful journey of self-discovery and a golden opportunity to share my professional life with many outstanding people.