The loss of Dr Anita Roberts
Cancer research and the cause of women in science and medicine lost a true leader and shining example last week with the passing of Dr. Anita Roberts to gastric cancer. She was only 64.
From her Washington Post obituary:
Dr. Roberts, the 49th most-cited scientist in the world and the third most-cited female scientist, was chief of the Laboratory of Cell Regulation and Carcinogenesis at the National Cancer Institute, where she created a nurturing culture, a colleague said.
She and her research partner, Dr Michael Sporn of Dartmouth Medical School, won the 2005 Komen Foundation Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction for their work on molecules that can turn a healthy cell cancerous. She also won the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology's 2005 Award for Excellence in Science.
I did not have the pleasure of knowing Dr Roberts, but the following passage makes me wish I had been privy to her wisdom:
Dr Roberts was described as a warm, enthusiastic and consistently upbeat supervisor who figured out how to balance work and family not just for herself, but for her colleagues as well, said Dr Lalage Wakefield, who worked with her for 25 years. She kept the 17 people in her lab happy "through the force of her personality," Wakefield said, describing a clear-eyed and supportive scientist.
Her work on TGF-beta with Dr Sporn shed considerable light on how cancer develops and wounds heal. She left us with this reflection on the complex nature of trying to "cure" cancer:
"Research takes a long, long time," she said. "I know the public is always looking for a magic bullet. They want you to say, 'This does that.' But our own biology is incredibly complex, so 'this' doesn't always do 'that.' As basic scientists, we're all driven by our excitement in finding answers. We hope it ends up as something that becomes therapy. But that doesn't happen unless you have a basic understanding of the process. And that's what my work is all about."
Moreover, I only learned this morning in the NCI Cancer Bulletin that Dr. Roberts had kept a blog diary of her struggle with cancer.
Her son and daughter-in-law wrote a beautiful on-line children's book, BellaDonna: A Story of Hope, to explain to their own children what was happening to their grandmother. The love and creativity illustrated in this work is touching and it works for me as a father of a 4-year-old. The book tells me that Dr. Roberts was an overwhelming success as a parent to her son, Greg, the book's co-author.
I highly recommend the book to anyone trying to explain cancer and cancer treatment to young children.
NOTE ADDED IN PROOF: Dr Bill Hooker over at Open Reading Frame wrote a small personal tribute to Dr Roberts and his personal experience with her selflessness and kindness.
(Hat tip to Ms.PhD at YoungFemaleScientist for reminding me of Dr Roberts' passing.)