AT 2 A.M. ON A RECENT THURSDAY, Dr. Jennifer Adair donned a cleanroom suit and stepped into Fred Hutch’s cell processing laboratory. She had been working almost around the clock for three days to insert engineered genes into a patient’s blood stem cells. At 5 a.m., Adair took advantage of a lull to dash home and have breakfast with her husband and four kids. Later that day — after more time in the lab and a call to the school nurse to check on a son who had hit his head playing football (he was fine) — she walked the modified cells to the clinic where they were infused back into the patient with the aggressive brain cancer glioblastoma.
She was home and in bed at midnight.
It’s all par for the course in Adair’s role coordinating clinical trials of new gene therapies to improve cancer treatment — and juggling the rest of her life.
“You just make it go,” said Adair, 38. “This is what you do: Make it go.”
Women in science, such as Adair, used to be a rarity. In 1973, women comprised only 9 percent of academic life sciences faculty in the U.S. By 2013, that number had climbed to 38 percent, according to surveys conducted by the National Science Foundation.
Science hasn’t solved its sexism problem — not by a long shot. Just in the last year, for example, a pair of studies showed that new female faculty members received less start-up funding than male junior faculty and that women are less likely to be promoted to the position of full professor at U.S. medical schools than their male counterparts.
But Dr. Garnet Anderson, director of Fred Hutch’s Public Health Sciences Division, said she’s seen a major demographic shift over the decades of her career.
“Early in my training in math and science I felt the lack of female role models,” she said. “I think that has changed dramatically in many but not all fields. Having leadership, or at least the camaraderie of others like you, provides a very powerful support mechanism.”
Thanks in part to pioneering women who broke new ground in the decades before them, Adair and other early-career researchers are finding more inspiration in the clinics and laboratories around them.
In this story, we’re featuring six rising-star female researchers at Fred Hutch: a gene therapist, a health economist, an immunotherapy researcher, a basic scientist redefining old ideas of how cells work, a biologist investigating cancer-causing bacteria and a biostatistician.
These six women don’t just fit into modern science. They stand out.
Carving their own paths
“What really gets me excited to wake up in the morning and come to the Hutch and be here for a 22-hour day, if that’s what it takes, is that we’re really tackling some big hurdles in the field of gene and cell therapy that have global applications,” said Adair, who is working to develop a simplified, affordable version of gene therapy that could be used in low-income parts of the world.
“I don’t like to tread the paths that have already been trod. I just want to figure out how to get where we need to go and the most efficient and creative solution we can use to get there.”
She’s not alone.