Thursday, September 11, 2008

Olja Finn: Immunologist and Mother

It seems like many of the successful women scientists I've profiled here have careers that follow a fairly straight path, from youthful science fairs to long hours in the lab and field as graduate students and postdocs. I think it's interesting to read about scientists whose careers took a more roundabout route. One such scientist is Olivera "Olja" Finn, Professor and Chair of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Immunology.

A recent profile in Science talks about her non-traditional (at least for a scientist) background. Finn grew up in the former Yugoslavia aspiring to direct plays. That changed when she met American college exchange student Seth Finn. Despite her youth - she was fresh out of high school - they married and moved to the United States.

After briefly attending college in California and Indiana, she ended up in Puerto Rico, where her husband was serving in the Coast Guard. At the urging of her father, a theater manager with geology and biology degrees, Finn had followed the technical track at her Yugoslavian high school. In Puerto Rico, her scientific ambition blossomed. For an undergraduate project at the Interamerican University in San Juan, where she completed her bachelor's degree in biology, Finn figured out missing steps in the life cycle of a hookworm that circulates among humans, birds, rats, and cockroaches. The work involved poking around seedy areas of downtown San Juan and picking up roaches as big as a tablespoon, but she loved it. "The life of research--getting data and making hypotheses--consumed me," she says.
The Finns also started a family, and she entered graduate school at Stanford with an 7-month-old infant. Her husband was also working towards his Ph.D. in Communications at Stanford. After earning her PhD and a two-year postdoc she joined the faculty of Duke University, chosen because her husband already had a position at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Finn and her husband took turns going for advancement. After Seth's job led them to North Carolina, the choice to move to Pittsburgh was hers. For 4 years, Seth commuted every week between Pennsylvania and North Carolina before being hired by Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.
Despite making choices that might seem detrimental to a career in science, such as starting a family before graduate school and letting her husband's career determine where she attended university and started her first lab, Finn has been quite successful.
Nearly 20 years ago, she discovered the first cancer antigen, a tumor molecule that elicits a reaction from immune cells. And despite spending her youth in Communist-run Yugoslavia, Finn has climbed the academic ladder in the United States--she is chair of immunology at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and has served as president of the American Association of Immunologists. She argues that interweaving career and family is essential. "I don't think we live long enough to do things sequentially."

And she thinks that having a family while young was a good deciscion:
If you think you'll have more time for parenting later in life, you are wrong, she says.

Carrie Miceli, who was Finn's first graduate student and is now an immunologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says she followed Finn's example, although she waited until starting her own lab to have a child. "It was great to see a woman with kids and a family who was not talking about what a compromise it was," says Miceli.

But what I wonder is how much support Olja Finn received from her husband while in graduate school. Having a husband who shares the child-care duties would obviously make a tremendous difference, since graduate students rarely have enough money to hire full-time babysitters and taking care of an infant while working in the lab would be very difficult.

Finn's laboratory is currently working towards developing a vaccine is designed to prevent colon cancer.
"The field has advanced faster because of her," says Martin Cheever, a medical oncologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. Finn deserves credit not only for her scientific insights, he adds, but also for her devotion to nurturing other scientists' research and fostering cross-disciplinary collaborations. Without such prompting, "cancer biologists and immunologists [usually] sit on their own sides of the fence," notes immunologist Ralph Steinman of Rockefeller University in New York City.
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