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Penn’s Department of Cell and Developmental Biology – Insights on Scientific Excellence from a Female Powerhouse

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Scientists do not perform for sell-out crowds. They are not swarmed at airports by adoring fans, asked for selfies, or honored at the Oscars. But there is still a kind of equivalent to scientific stardom: For those whose work advances the field and sets them apart from countless others on a quest for discovery, they are acknowledged by admittance to professional organizations like the National Academy of Sciences.

This spring, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a 158-year-old nonprofit organization that promotes scientific excellence and advises the United States government and public on the latest scientific developments, elected two scientists to its membership from the department of Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. M. Celeste Simon, PhD, the Arthur H. Rubenstein, MBBCh Professor and the scientific director of the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute, and Marisa S. Bartolomei, PhD, the Perelman Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology and co-Director of the Epigenetics Institute, were elected along with 118 others nationally.

NAS membership is one of the most prestigious forms of recognition for leading scientists at U.S. institutions. Any department that can claim two NAS members is impressive, but Penn’s CDB department now has five. Another standout fact? They are all women.

“Six years ago, when I took over as department chair of Cell and Developmental Biology from Jon Epstein (who is now the Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer of the Perelman School of Medicine), I was handed an incredibly strong department,” said Nancy A. Speck, PhD, the chair of Cell and Developmental Biology. “It’s a department of leaders and has been that way for years.”

Cultivating success in CDB grew from more than just work at the lab bench. The faculty meets regularly to discuss each other’s research, attends overnight retreats, reads each other’s grant applications and research papers, and more senior faculty provide mentorship to their early-career colleagues. It’s a place and collection of people primed for success.

Below, the CDB’s NAS members discuss COVID’s effect on their research, the significance of NAS membership, life at Penn, the future of Cell and Developmental Biology, and advice for the next generation of scientists.

COVID-19 complicated everyone’s life and work. How has it affected the labs in Cell and Developmental Biology?

“We were able to work back in the labs in shifts last fall which has allowed us all to continue our work. But I miss the chance meetings with colleagues in the BRB and around campus. Those serendipitous, unplanned interactions are crucial to a scientist’s success. Right now, we schedule more interactions to make up for it, but I look forward to being back with a building full of scientists who could bump into each other and start collaborating on a future discovery.”

M. Celeste Simon, PhD, Elected to NAS: 2021 / Penn faculty member since 1999

Part of your role as a member of the National Academy of Sciences is to advise the government on science and matters of public concern. Do you look forward to that aspect?

“I am looking forward to work on policy. I have experience working on policy with the NIH, and because my husband’s career is in health policy, I have insight into how much non-scientists rely on scientists to provide them with information and to decipher it. Basic scientists’ roles exist primarily at the beginning of the scientific process. When we are able to work on policy, we’re bringing the research full-circle and ensuring that breakthroughs at the bench lead to breakthroughs that help people.”

Marisa S. Bartolomei, PhD, Elected to NAS 2021 / Penn faculty member since 1993

Does Penn differ from other institutions in fostering collaborative research?

“Across departments and nationally, Penn has a reputation for being an institution where collaborations are common. Penn is well known to be an interactive environment. I think one of the unusual aspects of Penn is the many Institutes and Centers fostering interdisciplinary research between departments and across the campus. These interactions are essential to have impact in today’s biomedicine blending basic and clinical research. I think this has been a key to the success of many of us here at Penn – the possibility to find a scientist next door to really expand research horizons in creative directions.

Shelley L. Berger, PhD, Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology (Perelman School of Medicine) and Biology (School of Arts and Sciences), Elected to NAS 2018 / Penn faculty member since 2009

What do you see as the future of the field of Cell and Developmental Biology?

“An area of huge growth that is consistently continuing to advance is cell imaging. That growth is largely due to the technology. One of my goals has been to recruit more researchers whose expertise involves imaging. Imaging work is so beautiful and striking and allows both scientists and the public to understand underlying cellular mechanisms. Not only can we see cell processes that were previously unknown, but new images can also confirm data and findings that may have been previously debated. It’s a lot harder to argue with an image, and a ‘photo’ is much more captivating than a bar graph.”

Nancy A. Speck, PhD, Elected to NAS 2019 / Penn faculty member since 2008

What advice do you have for the next generations of scientists?

“I began studying hard as a kid in Italy when my mom would let me skip chores if I was studying. Then I found I loved it. Some people plan how they’d like their career to develop or only pursue stable paths. I never worried or even thought about what my career would look like or if I would find a job as a researcher. I followed my interests, my passions. I encourage people who love basic science to research for the love of it. If you are good at it and enjoy it, the opportunities will come.”

Clara Franzini-Armstrong, PhD, emeritus professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, Elected to NAS 1995 / Penn faculty member since 1975             

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