Sara A. Courtneidge, Ph.D.
Professor and Director of the Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis Program, and Director of Academic Affairs
Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute
Sara A. Courtneidge was born in the UK, and received her undergraduate degree from the University of Leeds and her Ph.D. from the National Institute for Medical Research, London. Following postdoctoral study at the University of California, San Francisco, and an independent position at the National Institute for Medical Research, she joined the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany in 1985, where she rose to the position of Senior Scientist. Changing course in 1994, Dr. Courtneidge joined SUGEN Inc., where as Chief Scientist she guided novel kinase discovery and validation efforts in oncology. From 2001-2005 she was Distinguished Scientific Investigator at the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr. Courtneidge joined the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in May 2005, and serves as Professor and Director of the Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis Program, and Director of Academic Affairs.
Dr. Courtneidge’s contributions to cancer research have been recognized with numerous honors, including election to the European Molecular Biology Organization, the Jubilee Lecture and Harden Medal of the British Biochemical Society, the Feodor Lynen Lecture and Lynen Medal, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Leeds.
What are you most passionate about professionally? What most excites you about your work and the contribution you can make?
I started out my career as a basic scientist, albeit one with a passion for understanding cancer. I subsequently took a career turn when I gave up my tenured position at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory to become head of research at a biotechnology company, where I guided efforts in cancer target identification and validation. In coming back to the not-for-profit world, I decided to combine these two passions into one line of research. I chose to focus on dissecting at the molecular level tumor cell invasion and metastasis; poorly understood properties which cause most cancer deaths. We have also devoted significant effort to using high throughput strategies to define novel druggable molecular targets (for example kinases) that control cancer cell invasion, which could in the future form the basis of new therapeutic strategies. This approach is of course very high risk– too risky at this time for the pharmaceutical industry– but what an impact if we are successful.
What advice would you give to women scientists?
I think that there are three important areas:
First, find good role models and/or mentors. Ideally, of course, everyone would have access to one or more good mentors. These do not necessarily need to be female (all of mine were male), but they do need to be people you admire and trust, who will be supportive yet candid, and who are selfless in the time they devote to helping others. I recognize that not everyone has access to such individuals, and that is why I think a good backup plan is to have role models. These are female scientists (living or dead) whose achievements you admire. Study their career paths, learn how they overcame adversity, and then you will be able to ask “what would my role model do in this situation?”.
Second, I find that all too frequently young female scientists give themselves negative messages. Stop telling yourself what you can’t do, or that something is too difficult, or that you don’t have the knowledge to serve on a committee/panel etc. Instead develop both short term and long term career goals. Then have confidence in your abilities and work tenaciously towards your goals. Along the way, be sure to help other developing scientists (male and female).
Third, ensure you are being recognized for your achievements. Be assertive about getting the credit you deserve (first authorship perhaps, or a chance to present at a conference), make sure that your department chair, mentor, etc., knows about landmark discoveries, grants awarded, etc. And speak up if you want to serve on a committee, help organize a meeting, or be nominated for an award; visibility is important.
What personal attribute do you think has been most important to your success?
I think it has been my tenacity. When I was working at the bench myself and I had an inkling of a possible new mechanism or pathway, I would not let challenges stop me; instead I doubled my efforts and learned any new techniques I might need to test my hypothesis. I continue to bring perseverance and determination to my laboratory research, and to my administrative and advisory functions.
Last book read?
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.
What would be impossible for you to give up?
My dogs! Currently a 2-year old Golden Retriever named Jack and a 5-month old West Highland White Terrier called Gracie. There is nothing like a romp on the beach with your dogs to bring everything back into perspective.
Who is your hero and why?
Barbara McClintock, for her passion for and commitment to science for its own sake.
Why did you become a scientist?
Apparently at the age of 7 or 8 I announced to my family I was going to be a scientist! I never considered any other career. In high school I vacillated between biology and chemistry, and eventually studied biochemistry in college. I think my career choice reflected my interests in the natural world and my curiosity to discover how things work.