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April 24, 2018

Why mentor? One researcher’s story

By Elizabeth Zimmermann

Joy Emelie V. Wolfram, Ph.D.
* Assistant Professor of Medicine: Transplant Research, Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Florida
* Director: Nanomedicine and Extracellular Vesicles Laboratory, Mayo Clinic
* Courtesy Research Faculty Member: Department of Biology, University of North Florida, Jacksonville
* Associate Research Professor: Wenzhou Institute of Biomaterials & Engineering, Ningbo Institute of Industrial Technology, China
* Affiliate Assistant Faculty Member: Department of Nanomedicine, Houston Methodist Research Institute, Houston, Texas
Education:
* B.S., Biology, University of Helsinki, Finland
* M.S., Biology, University of Helsinki
* Ph.D., Nanotechnology, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing; and Houston Methodist Research Institute, Texas

In medical research at Mayo Clinic, as in all other fields here, diversity is welcome. Each person brings unique perspectives, experiences and knowledge. However, while there are known benefits for an organization that has diverse teams, individual team members sometimes find their greatest satisfaction and professional success comes from having mentors with like backgrounds.

Research results vary, but in one study[i] looking specifically at students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, researchers found that having a mentor of one’s own gender or race was felt to be important by many students, especially women and students of color. And although academic outcomes were not affected by mentoring pairs matched or unmatched by race or gender, the matched students reported greater satisfaction with their mentoring experience, believing race and/or gender matching to be important.

Mayo Clinic researcher Joy Wolfram, Ph.D., has a personal goal to be a role model for underrepresented minorities in science. Actively involved throughout her career in community outreach and scientific education, she currently has a student researcher in her laboratory who shares some characteristics. They both are young women of European origin, in the U.S., pursuing a very specific field in medical research.

Dr. Wolfram met Sara Busatto at an international conference, where they enthusiastically discussed nanomedicine (not a topic for the faint-hearted). She learned about Sara’s experience, and says “Sara had several great ideas for future projects…She was very motivated to use nanoparticles to make an impact in medicine.” Dr. Wolfram recognized that Sara would be a great addition to the Nanomedicine and Extracellular Vesicles Laboratory group, and offered to mentor Sara through her final year of doctoral studies.

Dr. Wolfram talked to me recently and shared some of her background, and her motivations for being a mentor to Sara, and others along the way.

What moment or experience in your life led you to pursue a medical research career?

When I was 11 years old, we took my dog to the vet due to a skin infection. The vet collected swabs in bacterial culture plates. I watched the process with fascination and asked whether I could take some of the laboratory supplies home, but my request was denied. As we were leaving, the vet secretly handed me a bag while whispering, “don’t tell anyone.” That evening, I went home to build a miniature microbiology lab and swabbed different shelves in our fridge. The culture plates filled up with colors and shapes. I called my family in excitement and declared that our fridge was full of bacteria! They were horrified. As I watched my dog get better, I realized it wasn’t our fridge that was unusually dirty, it was just science that was unusually cool and important.

Helsinki to Beijing to Jacksonville, Florida…what took you on that path? And what specifically brought you to Mayo Clinic?

During high school, I watched many of my friends’ parents die of cancer. I felt frustrated that so much effort had been placed on finding treatments for this disease during the past six decades – with minimal progress. To change this, I wanted to do something completely different in cancer research. I applied for a position in nanotechnology at the Houston Methodist Hospital that is located in the largest medical center in the world.

This hospital has several national and international academic partners for graduate school. I chose to apply to a joint Ph.D. program with a Chinese university. I felt that I would be in a unique position to facilitate scientific discovery in nanomedicine by bringing together knowledge and innovation from the United States and China, which are the two leading nations in nanotechnology. I strongly believe that it is essential to initiate and maintain global partnerships to solve the major scientific challenges that we face today.

After my Ph.D., I joined Mayo Clinic due to the fantastic reputation of this institute and the patient-oriented research. What I like most about Mayo Clinic is the collaborative environment between physicians and scientists. It has been amazing to see the results from the joint efforts between my research group and Mayo Clinic clinicians. For instance, we are partnering with Mody Kabir, M.D., and a nanomedicine company to do a clinical trial at Mayo Clinic based on the results from my preclinical work.

What does being a mentor mean to you?

“My most important role as a scientist is to inspire students to think differently and have the courage to pursue challenging research that tackles major health care problems.”—Joy Wolfram, Ph.D.

I believe that my most important role as a scientist is to inspire students to think differently and have the courage to pursue challenging research that tackles major health care problems. There is a limit to what a single person can achieve during her research career but if we can encourage others to take on scientific challenges, the opportunities to improve the world are boundless. The ability to create a research environment that fosters visionary leaders, who go on to inspire others, leads to an exponential effect that will spread through future generations.

My goal is also to be a role model for underrepresented minorities in science and I have been actively involved in community outreach and scientific education. For instance, I serve as Co-Chair of National Cancer Institute’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Network Education and Outreach Working Group. My role is to support the education and career development of students by organizing research programs, courses, and seminars about nanomedicine. For the past five years, I have also participated in the organization of outreach events that expose K-12 grade students to science. These events are designed to teach children about science through hands-on activities.

Do you recall a mentor or two along the way who were especially instrumental in helping you achieve your goals?

“Scientific breakthroughs have two components: Crazy ideas and people with the courage to pursue them.”—Joy Wolfram, Ph.D.

Mauro Ferrari, Ph.D., President and CEO, Houston Methodist Research Institute, was my Ph.D. mentor in the United States. I am so grateful to him for pushing me to constantly grow, allowing me to pursue crazy research ideas, and for sharing his keen intellect. I really admire his strong vision that anything is possible, and it has been astonishing to observe that reality often conforms to his thinking. Dr. Ferrari was also instrumental in planning the next stage of my career after my Ph.D.

Yuliang Zhao, Ph.D., Deputy Director-General of the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology of China, was my Ph.D. mentor in China. I am so grateful to him for welcoming me into his group and for his hospitality. He has provided me with so much guidance and opportunities throughout my career. When I graduated, he asked if I would be willing to mentor his son in the future. His lifelong dedication and passion for nanotechnology is evident in many ways, including the fact that he named his son Nano.

I stay in frequent contact with Drs. Ferrari and Zhao who have both become close friends. I often look to them for inspiration on how to change health care and science.

Have you mentored others before Sara Busatto?

Dr. Wolfram (middle) explaining concepts to research trainees (left to right): Sara Busatto, George Vilanilam, and Taylor Ticer.

I have mentored many outstanding individuals at different career stages from high school students to postdoctoral fellows. I still keep in touch with all my former mentees who are now doing research or practicing medicine at top institutes around the world.For instance, Bronwyn Scott, who is now at Stanford Medical School worked under my mentorship as an undergraduate student during her summer and winter break of 2013. I encouraged her to come up with crazy new ideas and told her that she had a unique advantage as an undergraduate student, as she had a fresh perspective on science, unlike more experienced researchers that are stuck in their old ways of thinking. Bronwyn came up with the idea of using a yeast enzyme for cancer therapy. The yeast enzyme would convert sugar to a toxic substance, thereby causing cancer cell death. Amazingly, the idea worked and Bronwyn ended up publishing a first author manuscript as well as two additional coauthor manuscripts.

Bronwyn was named a Stamps Scholar a few years ago, and when asked who had the greatest impact on her throughout her college career, cited Dr. Wolfram. Her response: “My incredible research mentor Dr. Joy Wolfram had inspired me to work hard, believe in myself, and remain unapologetic for my passion and drive. She continuously pushes me to reach for goals I thought were unattainable.” 

Does Mayo Clinic make it easy to be a mentor (formal or informal)?

Mayo Clinic has many great mentorship initiatives. I have especially enjoyed events focused on supporting gender and racial minorities in science, such as WiSER - Women in Science and Engineering Research Coffee Chats.

WiSER is one of dozens of employee resource groups at Mayo Clinic that celebrate, support and encourage diversity among employees. Many other resources, including these groups, are found within the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. This office leads Mayo Clinic initiatives to ensure that we maintain a leadership role among peer institutions and the community as a model for diversity and inclusion; and that our patients, students, staff, and volunteers flourish in that environment.

Hazarding a guess, I’d say that Dr. Wolfram is probably an active ingredient in the success of this initiative at Mayo Clinic. My personal favorite quote from Dr. Wolfram, “Scientific breakthroughs have two components: Crazy ideas and people with the courage to pursue them.” Hopefully many young women and men will take her up on this challenge – the future of health and health care depends on it.

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[i] Blake-Beard, S. (2011)., Matching by Race and Gender in Mentoring Relationships: Keeping our Eyes on the Prize.  Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 67, No. 3, 2011, pp. 622–643

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Tags: Education, Joy Wolfram, medical research education, People, research education

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