Two members of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have received awards from the Seattle chapter of the Association for Women in Science, or AWIS: Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, a transplant biologist and student mentor, and Dr. Colleen Delaney, an expert in cord blood transplantation who also has a passion for nurturing the next generation of scientists.
Torok-Storb, who credits her own mentors for helping her overcome the odds to become a scientist whose work has played an important role in the development of bone marrow transplantation, has received the AWIS Award of Excellence in Science Education/Outreach. Delaney, director of the Cord Blood Program and Madeline Dabney Adams Endowed Chair in AML Research at the Hutch, and founder and chief medical officer of spinoff Nohla Therapeutics, has received the AWIS Award for Scientific Advancement and Leadership in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math.
They will be among four women scientists honored at the sixth annual Seattle AWIS Banquet June 14 at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture.
“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 in a 2014 interview, referring to her impoverished childhood growing up in a public housing project in Erie, Pennsylvania.
In spite of her challenging beginnings, she went on to make significant contributions to the field of transplant biology. Today, her focus is on helping students overcome challenges to build successful careers in science.
To this end, Torok-Storb directs the center’s Summer High School Internship Program, or SHIP, in which students from diverse backgrounds spend eight weeks on the Fred Hutch campus before the beginning of their senior year. They learn research processes and techniques, work on projects and participate in workshops. Torok-Storb recruits faculty from throughout the Hutch to volunteer as program mentors.
“One of the reasons the program works so well is Bev personally contacts prospective mentors to encourage their participation,” said Dr. Julie Overbaugh, a researcher in the Human Biology Division and associate director for Graduate Education at the Hutch, in a letter nominating Torok-Storb for the award.
“Having been on the receiving end of one of those calls, I can tell you she is very persuasive. It is easy to get caught up in her enthusiasm, and when she describes the student and what this experience will mean, it is clear it comes from the heart.”
Torok-Storb started the internship program with six students in 2010 and by last summer grew it to accommodate more than 40, thanks to a number of funding sources, including the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, AT&T and the Richard C. Goldstein Private Family Foundation. To date, 155 students, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, have participated in the internship program, about half of them girls.
“For the students of this program, most do not have family members in STEM careers and have little concept of what a career in STEM might look like. Most are first-generation college and/or from underserved populations. Thus, for the program to be most useful, it is important to place students into research labs with mentors,” said Overbaugh, the center’s Endowed Chair for Graduate Education who herself has served as a SHIP mentor.
Many SHIP students have gone on to study at esteemed institutions such as Stanford, Princeton and Cornell universities and have been hired by organizations such as NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the Allen Institute for Brain Science and Fred Hutch.
Torok-Storb also created an offshoot of SHIP called the Lead Intern Program, in which the students return for a second summer, after their senior year, to assist with new interns and, in the process, serve as role models and gain valuable mentorship experience. Lead Intern students can compete to participate in a program Torok-Storb created called the Clinical Scholars Program, which in partnership with Fred Hutch’s clinical care partner, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, provides 80 hours of exposure to clinical care and medical research for those who aspire to a career in medicine.
One recent SHIP graduate and Clinical Scholars Program participant, Jacob Greene, a native of Bellevue, Washington, is now a freshman at Stanford, where he’s interning in neurology and neurological sciences. He also has cystic fibrosis, a rare genetic disease that has influenced his dream of becoming a doctor. In nominating “Dr. Bev” for the AWIS award, he could barely contain his respect and enthusiasm.
“Over the course of the past two summers, Dr. Bev has not wavered in her pursuit to mentor the next generation of scientists. Whether it be teaching me about hematopoiesis [the formation of blood components], giving advice on the course I should take for school, or helping discover how I can use my cystic fibrosis to improve others’ lives, Dr. Bev has undoubtedly made more of an impact on my life than any other person I know,” he wrote.
Torok-Storb has been at the Hutch since 1980, a time when the scientific community was overwhelmingly male. Breaking glass ceilings and overcoming social barriers has been an intrinsic part of her career.
“Dr. Bev is a light to everyone, especially female scientists, showing that regardless of gender, background or status in society, we, as students, should never settle for the status quo. Rather, we should challenge accepted norms, whether those be scientific theories or gender stereotypes,” Greene said.
Just as Torok-Storb seeks to level the playing field for aspiring scientists, her colleague Dr. Colleen Delaney, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist, seeks to level the playing field for transplant patients — particularly those of mixed race or ethnicity who otherwise would not be able to find a tissue-matched blood stem cell donor.
Delaney established the Hutch’s Cord Blood Program in 2006. Umbilical cord blood can provide an alternate source of stem cells for transplantation when a person’s own bone marrow has failed or is diseased. Because cord blood has fewer tissue-typing requirements than other donor sources of stem cells, it is a lifesaving option for many.
“Dr. Delaney has worked tirelessly to ensure that every patient who needs a stem cell transplant will have an appropriate donor, and that the success of that transplant is constantly improving,” said Dr. Nancy E. Davidson, senior vice president and director of the Hutch’s Clinical Research Division, and Endowed Chair for Breast Cancer Research, in nominating Delaney for the AWIS award. “Through her passion and accomplishments, she models the ideas of a successful woman in STEM.”
To overcome the fact that a single unit of cord blood contains very few blood-forming stem cells, Delaney developed a novel method to significantly multiply, or expand, those available stem cells. She has carried out clinical trials demonstrating the safety and effectiveness of using this expanded cord-blood product in transplant patients. Delaney also has shown that this off-the-shelf cord-blood product can help prevent infections in those undergoing high-dose chemotherapy to treat acute myeloid leukemia.
This development led to the founding of Nohla Therapeutics in 2015 to further scale up production and testing of this cellular-therapy product.
“Dr. Delaney is the consummate physician-scientist,” Davidson said. “She has always been focused on improving treatments for patients by advancing science from bench to bedside while also providing individualized, compassionate care.” Davidson also serves as president and executive director of SCCA, through which Delaney treats pediatric cancer patients at Seattle Children’s.
“She is also a wonderful role model,” Davidson said of Delaney. “As a beloved physician, highly successful translational scientist, and founder and chief medical officer of a company trying to bring the benefits of cord-blood treatments to patients with cancer, she has shown that being passionate about one’s work leads to great success.”
Delaney’s passion extends to her mentorship activities. She has mentored three female undergraduate summer interns, all of whom have advanced to further medical training. She also mentored a medical student in a summer internship for the American Society of Hematology Minority Medical Student Award Program, and her postdoctoral trainees have included six women, all hematology/oncology fellows who have moved on to active clinical and research careers. In addition, Delaney is mentoring a postdoctoral fellow in her lab and a young cord blood transplant physician who is developing her clinical research career.
Previous Hutch AWIS Award recipients include Overbaugh, who in 2015 received the Award for Scientific Advancement, and Dr. Nancy Hutchinson, former director of the Hutch’s Science Education Partnership, who in 2014 received the Award for Scientific Education/Outreach.
For more information about the AWIS award banquet, which is open to the public, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kristen Woodward, a former associate editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, had been in communications at Fred Hutch for more than 20 years. Before that, she was a managing editor at the University of Michigan Health System and a reporter/editor at The Holland Sentinel, a daily in western Michigan. She has received many national awards for health and science writing. She received her B.A. in journalism from Michigan State University.