When graduate student Sarah Bettigole approached Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher to work in her lab, she felt as though she were proposing marriage. The analogy made sense: In Glimcher, now the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medical College, Bettigole saw her ideal, an experienced and wise mentor who modeled infinite possibilities as a woman in science.
The relationship they’ve developed over the last four years, Bettigole says – first at Harvard University, where Glimcher was then a professor of immunology, and now at Weill Cornell, where the physician-scientist moved her lab when she became dean – has been “incredible.”
“Laurie has been one of the best, if not the best, scientific role models in my life, regardless of gender,” says Bettigole, 27, who successfully defended her doctoral dissertation last week and is the subject of the first episode of the new Inside Medicine at Weill Cornell video series.
From Glimcher, Bettigole says, she has learned how to accept and move on from failure – an essential skill in a field in which most experiments lead to dead ends. She has discovered the need to make one’s science broadly meaningful and positively impact patients.
And while gender hasn’t been an explicit theme in their interactions, Bettigole has received consistent support about how to achieve her professional and personal aspirations from Glimcher, who raised three children while rising through the ranks of academic medicine: Just do it, and do it better.
“She grew up in a time where [gender] really mattered a whole lot more,” says Bettigole, whose family and teachers encouraged her interest in biology. “You had to fight a lot to prove you were just as good. And so her attitude now is kind of, ‘If you’re a woman in science, you have to be better, you have to be tougher.’”
As Bettigole explains in the video, a scientist’s investment in an idea confronts the limitations of her lab results. That’s what happened when she and her colleagues were trying to figure out why an immune cell known as an eosinophil, a major player in allergy, asthma and parasite infections, was completely eliminated after blocking a key cellular stress response. The scientists had hit a wall, Bettigole recalls, and Glimcher stepped in to strategically refocus the paper on describing how the eosinophil stopped working, rather than why.
The paper is under review at Nature Immunology.
“You have to get really good with failure,” Bettigole says. “If you get a hint, a tantalizing hint that something is real, then you slog through the failures trying to figure out why it’s real. But another part of science is figuring out when you’re wrong enough of the time to let it go, which is a skill that I’ve learned really well here.”
Science also involves telling a story – another skill she learned from her mentor. While planning their paper on eosinophil development – a process highlighted in the video – the dean recommended the authors emphasize the severity and specificity of the immune cell defect and implications for eosinophil-mediated disease rather than general cell biology.
“That ability to really distill that information down to what is an important question to ask and how can it actually help people – they’re the only things that matter,” Bettigole says.
Bettigole also learned from Glimcher that good science requires participation in myriad spheres; in addition to heading a lab, the dean fundraises and advises a pharmaceutical company. That juggling act, while tricky, can extend the reach and magnitude of an investigator’s science and add depth to her skill set, Bettigole says.
Jordan Lite is senior editor for Weill Cornell Medical College.