July 7, 2014
By Susan Keown
Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb knows that if it weren’t for her mentors, she would never have become the scientist she is today.
“The only reason I made it as far as I did is because of special teachers along the way who let me know that I was capable and I could do it,” said Torok-Storb, looking back at her impoverished childhood in a public housing project in Erie, Pennsylvania.
In spite of her challenging beginning, Torok-Storb has played an important part in the development of bone marrow transplantation as an effective therapy for blood diseases. Her studies of the stem cells in bone marrow and their requirements for successful growth have contributed to advances in transplantation techniques that have saved the lives of patients with leukemia and other blood cancers.
In one of her major contributions, Torok-Storb demonstrated the importance of the interactions between blood stem cells and the supportive cells in the marrow. She showed that these supportive cells send signals that tell the stem cells how to develop and are vital to the success of a transplant. Today, Torok-Storb, a member of the Clinical Research Division, and other researchers continue to identify more signals that help regulate stem cells — discoveries that will continue to improve transplant methods and save lives in the future.
The path to discoveries like these requires a determination to follow the data into whatever new territory they might lead. In Torok-Storb’s career, she hasn’t been afraid to redraw the maps. One of her first professional achievements was to overturn a decade of research by some of the most respected scientists in the field, who erroneously thought that stem cells in the bone marrow had the power to become any cell in the body. (They can only become blood cells, she proved, putting her colleagues back on track.)
Torok-Storb continues to challenge the status quo. But these days, her passion lies in helping kids overcome the odds they face to achieve careers in science — just as her mentors did for her.
In 2010, she created a three-year research internship program, in partnership with the Technology Access Foundation of Federal Way, Washington, for high school students from this economically disadvantaged community. The following year, she founded a summer internship program for high school students from racial and ethnic backgrounds that are underrepresented in science. These two programs have profound impacts on students who may otherwise have never set foot in a lab or thought of themselves as scientists, but who are now beginning to go to college and study science themselves.
“To watch them change after they’ve been here for a while really gives me a sense of joy,” Torok-Storb said. “They become confident. They approach people differently. They feel they belong and that they can do it. It’s really wonderful.”
Susan Keown is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Before joining Fred Hutch in 2014, Susan wrote about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at email@example.com.