Dr. Janet D. Rowley

Every university has its share of legends. Some may be sports related, like John Wooden of UCLA or Coach Dean Smith of my alma mater, UNC. Some are famous politicians (the Ivy League can lay claim to nearly every American president). And some legends are scientists.

My current school, the University of Chicago, is most famous for two people: Milton Friedman and Enrico Fermi. Both were Nobel Prize-winners and made legends of their respective departments. Friedman, one of the most recognizable names in economics,  is best known today for his conservative capitalism and founding the “Chicago School of Economics.” Fermi, a physicist, is perhaps best remembered for his work in building the atomic bomb (a statue on campus commemorates the first successful nuclear chain reaction).  The UoC boasts more Nobel Prize winners than any other university in the world. The legend I write of now, and arguably the UoC’s most famous living scientist  has received many awards and honors, but not the Nobel Prize……..yet.

Dr. Janet D. Rowley, affectionately called by some colleagues the “Grand Dame of The University of Chicago,” is one of the world’s foremost experts in the field of cancer cytogenetics. As a cancer biologist at the Univ. of Chicago, I was taught early on about Dr. Rowley’s major breakthrough in identifying the cause of a deadly form of  leukemia, CML (chronic myelogenous leukemia). Look up “BCR-ABL” or the “Philadelphia chromosome” and you’re sure to see her name somewhere. Her discovery in the early 1970s that a translocation, in essence the breaking apart and rejoining of pieces of different chromosomes, caused cancer (instead of being merely symptomatic), was revolutionary. In the nearly 40 years since her groundbreaking work, Dr. Rowley has hardly rested on her laurels. She continues to lead the field of cancer cytogenetics and is even branching into newer, untried fields such as cancer stem cells and microRNAs.

Dr. Rowley with Dr. Timothy McKeithan, in 1973 (©Univ. of Chicago)

For her accomplishments, Dr. Rowley has received numerous awards and honors, including most recently the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Pres. Obama, the Lasker Award from Pres. Clinton  (medicine’s most prestigious award and considered one step below the Nobel Prize), the American Association for Cancer Research’s Lifetime Achievement Award, among others.

In addition to her brilliant mind, Dr. Rowley is also beloved for her down-to-earth demeanor and charming quirks. To speak with her is to speak with a legend, but you wouldn’t immediately guess her legendary status. For one, despite her 80+ years, she continues to ride her bike around Hyde Park and campus.

During my first two and a half years at the university, I remained content to admire Dr. Rowley from afar save a few brief encounters. Since this May, however, I’ve interacted with her much more and have managed to draw her attention in a way I never expected. It started with our annual Biomedical Cluster retreat. I was volunteered to the student committee by my PI and worked with faculty organizers and fellow students to plan the day. One of our duties was to choose a keynote speaker (essentially the highlight of the meeting). Several names were nominated, including Dr. Rowley’s by myself and others. She was the popular choice of both students and faculty, and the task was soon assigned to the student committee of formally inviting her. Knowing her somewhat better than the other students, I volunteered to take charge of the invite. After agonizing for a couple of days over the language (how to be deferential without being obsequious or sycophantic is a bit of a challenge!), I finally finished it, got everyone’s signatures, and delivered it in person.

She skimmed over the letter, looked at the date, and then did something which absolutely charmed me. She pulled out a little black diary, flipped to May 10, saw that the date was open, and penciled me in. My name was formally entered into our university’s most famous scientist personal diary. It made me  giddy. Prior to the retreat, she stopped by my office to ask me about the kind of presentation she should give. My friend Kate said that I had a special visitor, and when I saw Dr. Rowley at the door I literally sprang out of my seat in surprise at the unexpected honor. Here was Dr. Janet Rowley asking me, a mere student, for advice. I spoke my mind and she incorporated those comments into her presentation. I also made sure I introduced her at the retreat and had my picture taken with her afterward.

On July 14th I was schedule to present at our cancer biology journal club. It was my first journal club presentation and happened to fall on Bastille Day, so I had to reference that somehow. According, I chose a paper looking at recurrent chromosomal abnormalities in multiple myeloma (a “liquid tumor” disease but not one I know a whole lot about), by a French group. At a seminar prior to my presentation, Dr. Rowley told me she noticed I was scheduled to present shortly and that she would do her best to attend. I told I’d be thrilled if she came but that she didn’t need to, as few faculty ever attend journal club.

Sure enough, a few minutes before I started she walked in. In my three years at the university I have never seen Dr. Rowley at a journal club. I couldn’t help but feel such pride at getting that kind of attention from her. Turns out it was good for me scientifically that she was there. She is one of the world’s experts on recurrent chromosomal abnormalities and when someone asked a question about them, I answered on my own and had the pleasure of asking for her opinion as well. Not a bad way to end my first journal club!

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