Disclosure: Coussens reports research grants from Cancer Research UK, National Foundation for Cancer Research, NIH/NCI, NIH/NHLBI, OHSU Brenden-Colson Center for Pancreatic Care, Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and Wayne D. Kuni & Joan E Kuni Foundation; Reagent and/or research support from Acerta Pharma, Cell Signaling Technologies, Syndax Pharmaceuticals and ZellBio GmbH; consulting roles at AbbVie, Cell Signaling Technologies and Shasqi; and Scientific Advisory Board roles at Alkermes, Carisma Therapeutics, Cell Signaling Technologies, CytomX Therapeutics, Genenta Science, HiberCell, Inc., Kineta, Inc., PDX Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Pio Therapeutics, Syndax Pharmaceuticals, Verseau Therapeutics, and Zymeworks, Inc.
Lisa M. Coussens, PhD, FAACR, the 2022-2023 president of the American Association for Cancer Research, aims to make mentoring and education — for junior faculty as well as undergraduate and high school students — a core focus of her tenure.
Healio spoke to Coussens, who also serves as Chair of the Department of Cellular, Developmental and Cancer Biology at Oregon Health & Science University and Associate Director of Basic Research at the Knight Cancer Institute, about how she came to work in cancer biology, and on tips on how male physicians can be powerful mentors and allies for women, and her trend-setting advice on networking for those in the early years of their oncology and biomedical careers.
Unhurt: What made you decide to pursue your current career?
cousins: I completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology in the 70’s. Although there weren’t many jobs at the time, I was fortunate enough to get a job as a dishwasher at Genentech, which had started a few years earlier. Shortly thereafter, I was able to secure a position in the laboratory Axel Ullrich, PhD, at Genentech, at the birth of the molecular biology revolution. During the 8 years I worked there, Axel’s lab taught me molecular biology skills that we used to clone receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs), epidermal growth factor receptors, and others. Axel’s subsequent research with colleagues was pivotal in the development of trastuzumab for HER2-positive breast cancer.
In the early years of cloning these RTKs turned out to be cellular proto-oncogenes used by viral oncogenes to promote malignancy. The whole idea that normal cellular control mechanisms that drive basic proliferation could be hijacked to drive a neoplastic process intrigued me. It was the first time I realized that in science we don’t have all the answers and that there is so much to discover. It just sparked creativity and imagination in me. I realized that a bachelor’s degree in marine biology was not good enough for me at the time, so I went to UCLA for a PhD in biological chemistry. I’ve had phenomenal mentors as a graduate student and then as a postdoctoral fellow, and I’ve never strayed from an oncology path, always asking fundamental questions about things we don’t know the answers to.
Healio: What would you say are your goals for your presidency?
cousins: There are two main areas I will focus my initiatives on, both drawn from personal experience. First, my career was greatly facilitated by the type of mentoring I had along the way, which included both strong female and male mentors who were good advocates and sponsors for me, as well as people I could trust to guide me tell me the truth The guidance I received from them helped me make course corrections while encouraging me to pursue what I found interesting, even if the field at the time was reluctant to go in the direction I was taking. I was always encouraged to follow my gut and instincts and let the data guide the process.
This resulted in the procedure for my laboratory. What I have realized as a woman in science who has had the privilege of achieving high profile is that I have had the opportunity to impact the careers of young scientists and others around me. Taking on the role of a professor to build a program that could influence and nurture young talent seemed too good to be true.
As President, my ultimate goal is to influence the next generation of scientists through mentoring programs and educational opportunities, but also to use the platform society has to influence undergraduate education and improve opportunities for students in underserved communities.
This requires more than just scholarship funding. It also requires travel and housing support for underserved communities so they can travel out of their local area and stay in a region close to a cancer center where they can have a 10- to 12-week experience that offers the opportunity to broaden their professional direction to change.
We will also examine the AACR’s already successful high school program with the goal of expanding or utilizing society’s talents to further improve science education in public high schools that have been under-funded, particularly in underserved areas that have been particularly hard-hit are in the last 2 years but certainly in the last 20 years with budget cuts.
My other main focus as President is interacting with the NCI and thought leaders working in the fast-growing field of multiplexed tissue imaging and exploring how we can leverage common practices and database sharing and long-term storage of data for further exploration can improve .
Healio: Do you have any advice for male doctors? or scientist can do to be allies for women in oncology?
cousins: My advice for women in basic research or clinical disciplines is to find strong mentors who are both advocates and facilitators. Sometimes these can be the same people, but often these traits are identified in different people. It’s not always possible, but I’ve benefited from very strong male and female mentors throughout my career.
The data tells us that men often care for women differently than other men. This creates an almost fundamental inequality; It’s an inequality that can disadvantage women in this career and probably all careers, which is why I encourage women to always ensure they have strong female mentorship as well. With male mentors for women, there needs to be transparency to ensure the advice, sponsorship and support they provide does not carry the unintended gender bias that the data tells us is present in biomedical research and clinical medicine is alive and well.
Men can be fabulous mentors, and there are some who are, without exception, the best. These men have been able to neutralize gender, so their advice, encouragement, and support are gender blind. They give the best advice to both their male mentees and their female mentees. Great male and female mentors can achieve this with their mentees.
Unhurt: Do you have aAny other advice for women starting out in their careers?
cousins: Medical or professional societies offer men and women at the beginning of their careers a phenomenal opportunity for advice and networking. One of the keys to success is knowing your peer group and network so you can turn to them for feedback, advice, encouragement and collaboration. Know who your family is. Clubs can help with that. The networking, career guidance and career development that comes from the diverse societies is second to none. I’m a strong advocate for young faculty joining the Societies, but not just as a passive observer or member – get involved, join the committees and know your communities and networks so you can leverage them.
For more informations:
Lisa M. Coussens, PhD, FAACR, reachable at: email@example.com.