Karma Kreizenbeck isn't one to back down from professional challenges. In fact, she has a track record of exploring foreign territory and quickly making herself at home.
"I've never had a job where I wasn't completely overwhelmed at first," Kreizenbeck said. "I think that's what makes it interesting. If you already know how to do the job, it's not especially satisfying. But figuring your way through something is kind of exciting."
Her excitement is clear as Kreizenbeck talks about navigating her job as the first administrator of the Hutchinson Center's International Research Initiative. The initiative joins early disease detection, immune-based therapies, childhood cancers and solid-tumor research as emerging scientific priorities in the Center's strategic plan.
Even as Center researchers and administrators grapple with the scope and direction of the International Research Initiative — apparent in the recent name change from the Global Health Initiative — Kreizenbeck has forged ahead in her first 10 months on the job.
Kreizenbeck helped coordinate aspects of the Pacific Health Summit in Seattle last June, a large inaugural gathering of Pacific-Rim researchers to discuss global health-care policy, emerging technologies and collaborative opportunities. The annual meeting, co-sponsored by the Center, was the first of four planned.
Kreizenbeck also traveled to Korea with Center President and Director Dr. Lee Hartwell to explore future research partnerships.
She organized the first meeting of the International Cancer Biomarker Consortium in October, a worldwide effort to accelerate the search for biomarkers, proteins in the blood that can detect cancer at its earliest stage. This consortium, led by Lee Hartwell and modeled after the Human Genome Project, includes 12 research teams that aim to make significant progress in biomarker discovery by working together and leveraging their collective resources and expertise. The Canary Foundation, a non-profit organization started by Center supporter Don Listwin, sponsored the meeting.
In November, Kreizenbeck coordinated an international-research retreat for Fred Hutchinson/University of Washington Cancer Consortium faculty. The one-day event brought together researchers with both long track records in conducting international studies and/or hopes of global endeavors to discuss the strategic goals and scientific aims of the program.
"At the outset there were many different projects that needed my immediate attention, so I was able to absorb information and learn by doing," said Kreizenbeck of her early projects, while acknowledging that so many front-burner tasks can impede long-range planning. "Now I have an opportunity to step back and think about the big picture".
"Right now, I'm spending a lot of time collecting information and trying to figure out where there are gaps, which things we could do better and which areas are working fine."
The bigger picture includes summarizing data from a recent faculty survey about researchers' existing international collaborations and interest in future partnerships. Kreizenbeck also plans to continue to help track and streamline processes for international projects.
"I don't think the goal of an international-research program is to create an artificial structure," Kreizenbeck said. "It's really an opportunity to encourage interaction among faculty with similar interests, find ways that we can facilitate better research, learn from one other and make efficient use of our resources. The program can facilitate sharing of information and systems, whether it's understanding nuances of human-subjects protection or local politics or contacts, or using infrastructure that's already been set up or a model that's been effective in one place and trying to transfer it to another".
"How to effectively network the diverse ideas and expertise into a program — we're still figuring that out. There is a lot of energy around this right now and a lot of ideas. We're in the process of getting people to talk about how to move forward."
Kreizenbeck is quick to point out that international research is not a novel idea at the Center. "It's a new thing as an institutional goal, but it's not a new thing to the Center," she said. "Some people, like David Thomas, have been doing it for years with projects like the Shanghai Studies. Our work with vaccines is well established. For others, like the International Cancer Biomarker Consortium or the Asia Cohort Consortium, we're just getting started".
"The challenge with an international program at the Center is the broad range of projects spanning early detection, infectious disease and prevention. It's really hard to encompass the program geographically or thematically."
Kreizenbeck says the Center's program will benefit from nearby, successful collaborators. "We have a unique opportunity to build a world-class, international-research program," she said. "We have great local partners like the University of Washington, PATH, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute and others who are also greatly invested in global health and international research, and we have great leadership and faculty."
Flexible and unflappable
She looks forward to working with Banks Warden, the Center's new vice president for planning and strategic development. "I know how to start and run projects, but I have more limited experience with institutional strategic planning. I'm delighted to have some mentoring and leadership in that area," Kreizenbeck said.
Chief Executive Officer Myra Tanita — who hired Kreizenbeck — never had any doubts about her capabilities. "Karma was a perfect fit for the position," Tanita said. "Throughout her career, she's been involved in developing and leading new programs. She's flexible when it comes to change or uncertainty. She maintains a great sense of humor through times of stress and handles challenges with ease. She's unflappable."
After graduate studies at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, Kreizenbeck managed a public policy/human-rights fellowship program for the Soros Foundation. She initially worked internationally with a network of foundations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and she helped set up foundations in Haiti. Just prior to coming to the Center, she conducted domestic-research projects, looking at economic opportunities for U.S. prisoners, a role that enabled her to tour many prisons. Finding the experience fascinating but bleak, she opted to switch career gears.
Center, SCCA experience
Kreizenbeck talked her way into a position working for Dr. John Potter in the Public Health Sciences Division's Cancer Genetics Network seven years ago. "They were wary of hiring me because they wanted someone with a Ph.D. in epidemiology or genetics," she said. "But I managed to convince them that they needed a solid manager who had enough intellectual curiosity to engage in the science. I was fortunate that they agreed."
She got the job and quickly learned about study management, public health, genetics and working within the scientific-research community. Five years later, Kreizenbeck took another position, teaming with Dr. Scott Ramsey to create the business model for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance's Prevention Clinic.
Her latest role feels like the perfect fit for Kreizenbeck. "This job merged my international work with my interest in research and science," she said. "It's always been important to me to work for an organization whose mission I believe in. I think that's what brings a lot of us here. To have the opportunity to work with people who are really intelligent and thoughtful is something that I seek out and is definitely found here."
It's an effort her kindergartener — who's not too young to appreciate the hope of early detection — is invested in, too. "He says, 'Mommy, if you work hard enough, you'll find those biomarkers,'" Kreizenbeck said. "It's pretty cool to be a part of this."
The Center's International Research Initiative brings together a global melting pot of ideas, resources and scientists to solve the world's most urgent public-health problems, as well as create new models for disease prevention and collaboration. The effort encompasses existing projects and hoped-for future endeavors including: