When graduate student Sarah Bettigole approached Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher to work in her lab, she felt as though she were proposing marriage. The analogy made sense: In Dr. Glimcher, now the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medical College, Dr. Bettigole saw her ideal, an experienced and wise mentor who modeled infinite possibilities as a woman in science.
The relationship they’ve developed over the last four years, Dr. Bettigole says — first at Harvard University, where Dr. Glimcher was then a professor of immunology, and now at Weill Cornell, where the physician-scientist moved her lab when she became dean — has been “incredible.”
“Laurie has been one of the best, if not the best, scientific role models in my life, regardless of gender,” says Dr. Bettigole, 27, who successfully defended her doctoral dissertation last week and is the subject of the first episode of the new Inside Medicine at Weill Cornell video series.
From Dr. Glimcher, Dr. Bettigole says, she has learned how to accept and move on from failure — an essential skill in a field in which most experiments lead to dead ends. She has discovered the need to make one’s science broadly meaningful and impactful for patients.
And while gender hasn’t been an explicit theme in their interactions, Dr. Bettigole has received a consistently firm but supportive message about how to achieve her professional and personal aspirations from Dr. Glimcher, who raised three children while rising through the ranks of academic medicine: Just do it, and do it better.
“She grew up in a time where [gender] really mattered a whole lot more,” says Dr. Bettigole, who remembers her family and teachers always encouraging her interest in biology. “You had to fight a lot to prove you were just as good. And so her attitude now is kind of, ‘If you’re a woman in science, you have to be better, you have to be tougher.’
“And that’s okay, I think that’s nice to kind of keep you driven,” Dr. Bettigole adds. “You have to be outspoken, you have to be confident, and you can do it. Don’t let somebody tell you that you can’t do it. But you have to earn it, too.”
Earning it, as Dr. Bettigole explains in the video, involves a kind of struggle between heart and mind, in which a scientist’s investment in an idea confronts the limitations of her results in the lab. That’s what happened when she and her colleagues were trying to figure out why an immune cell known as an eosinophil, a major player in allergy, asthma and parasite infections, was completely eliminated after blocking a key cellular stress response. The scientists had hit a wall, Dr. Bettigole recalls, and Dr. Glimcher stepped in to strategically refocus the paper on describing how the eosinophil stopped working, rather than why.
“You have to get really good with failure,” Dr. Bettigole says. “If you get a hint, a tantalizing hint that something is real, then you slog through the failures trying to figure out why it’s real. But another part of science is figuring out when you’re wrong enough of the time to let it go, which is a skill that I’ve learned really well here.”
Science also involves telling a story — another skill she learned from her mentor. While planning their paper on eosinophil development — a process highlighted in the video — the dean recommended that the authors emphasize the striking severity and specificity of the immune cell defect and the implications for eosinophil-mediated disease rather than more general cell biology. “There is a lot of nonsense that happens in science, and there are a lot of fireworks or decorations to try to make a story more interesting than something else, or more interesting than it actually is,” Dr. Bettigole says. “So that ability to really distill that information down to what is an important question to ask and how can it actually help people — they’re the only things that matter.
“Laurie has a wonderful historical perspective that facilitates a killer instinct about the best aspects of a project to highlight,” she says. “It helps you elevate your research to a level you didn’t expect, necessarily.” The paper is under review at Nature Immunology.
Among other boosts Dr. Bettigole received from Dr. Glimcher’s mentorship was the realization that good science requires participation in myriad spheres; in addition to heading a lab, the dean fundraises and advises a pharmaceutical company. That juggling act, while tricky, can extend the reach and magnitude of an investigator’s science, adding a depth to her skill set and a richness to her work, Dr. Bettigole says.
“There are a lot of demands and sometimes life really catches up with you and you feel overwhelmed,” Dr. Bettigole says. “So every now and then you’ll have a meeting with Laurie and you’ll say, ‘I feel like I can’t get all of this done. I feel like it’s just too much.’ Since she is a master of efficiency, she knows that there’s a way to pull it off, and she’ll just say very matter of factly, ‘Just do it.’
“The way that she says it makes you think that you haven’t thought of everything and that there actually is a way to pull it off, and that you know that you can find it,” Dr. Bettigole says. “So you refine your own skill set, you refine your own organizational strategy, and you find a way to do that very thing that you thought was impossible.”
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