Blossom Damania, Ph.D., has built her research career tackling difficult questions in cancer and global health research. As she begins her new role as Vice Dean for Research, she’s considering one more: What’s next?
Blossom Damania’s interest in research was awakened in a 7 a.m. biochemistry course during her junior year at Mount Holyoke College. It was a “killer” course, she recalled, known for its difficulty. But for Damania the class was a chance to envision the opportunities a career in science might afford.
“The questions we were asked to consider were so incredibly difficult,” Damania said. “That really changed the way I thought about science. I realized you could ask these ambitious questions that nobody knows the answer to. And that’s the point of scientific research.”
She’s been pursuing ambitious questions for the entirety of her research career, including the 16 years she’s been at the UNC School of Medicine and Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
How do certain viruses alter the workings of otherwise healthy cells to convert them into cancer cells? Why do some people with oncogenic viruses get cancer while others do not?
After countless publications and awards, Damania, the Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, is now one of the world’s leading virologists. And, as of July 1, she is the UNC School of Medicine’s Vice Dean for Research.
For our latest Five Questions feature, we sat down with Damania to discuss her path to this position, what she hopes to achieve in her new role, and her advice for junior faculty.
How did you first become interested in virology?
When I first entered graduate school, I really wasn’t sure where I wanted my focus to be. One of the major reasons I chose to attend the University of Pennsylvania was because at the time it was one of the few places offering a wide, umbrella program – similar to the BBSP program we now offer at UNC – which allowed one to rotate through multiple labs in the first year of graduate school.
I rotated in a lab that worked on viruses and cancer. We were studying an oncogenic virus which, although it only had a handful of genes, could commandeer the machinery of an otherwise perfectly normal cell and turn it into a cancer cell. It was incredible to me that something so tiny could exert so much control. From that point on, I was totally hooked.
Graduate school was a transformative experience for me; I learned to really do science at the bench. But, it was also difficult. There were a lot of long days, nights, and weekends at the bench and early on, a lot of bumps in the road as well. I tried many different avenues with my project and all of them failed.
Looking back, I can honestly say I learned more from those failures than any of my successes.
Slowly but surely, however, my experiments started to work and I remember being so very excited when I published my first paper.
I’d found that a viral oncogenic protein exerted its tumorigenic effects by functioning like a cellular transcription factor. So, the viral protein was taking over the host cell’s machinery, inducing expression of many growth factors and that’s how it was transforming a normal, healthy cell into a cancer cell.
That was such an exciting moment for me – it made all my early struggles worthwhile.
Do those experiences now color your interactions with younger researchers?
We’ve all been through situations where you work really hard but your efforts are not rewarded. Or, something happens that you weren’t expecting and you have to alter your approach. That’s life and you just have to persevere through the difficult times. This also means that you greatly appreciate the times when good things happen.
When you first start a lab, you know how to engage in scientific research, but no one teaches you all of the other stuff that goes into being an academic researcher like managing your lab budget, how to hire the right people, how to maneuver the academic tenure track path, etc. These are the kinds of things I discuss with junior faculty and fellows.
You’ve been at UNC since 2000, how would you assess the research environment here in Chapel Hill?
UNC has always had a strong research environment, but I think it’s just getting stronger and stronger as the years go by. I think Terry Magnuson has done a magnificent job over the last several years of building and fortifying our research infrastructure.
The reason I came to UNC – after completing my postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School – back in 2000 was because we have renowned virologists and a superb cancer center. There were people here whose work I had admired during my graduate and post-doctoral fellowship training. So, I knew I was coming to a place with great people.
When I first came to UNC, everyone was so supportive, and I benefited greatly from more senior faculty members who made themselves readily available to read my first grants, review my early papers, and give me advice. A lot of the successes that I’ve had, and awards that I have received during my time at UNC, can be attributed to the wonderful scientific environment we have here.
I think one of the best things about UNC is its collaborative atmosphere. Our scientists span many diverse disciplines and everyone is so helpful and collaborative. I think I’ve collaborated with over 20 faculty members across campus over the past 16 years. I don’t think that I’d be able to say that if I was somewhere else.
You helped start, and continue to lead, the Global Oncology Program at Lineberger. How did your interest in global health begin?
My family lived all around the world including India, Switzerland, France and England. I came to the United States as a teenager. This definitely gave me a global perspective, which I’ve brought to all of my work.
With regard to the Global Oncology Program, we’ve built so much momentum since Dr. Dirk Dittmer and I first launched the project in 2008. In Malawi, the Malawi Cancer Consortium has been a great success story. In Zambia, Groesbeck Parham has done such amazing work with cervical cancer.
So, we’re making inroads in basic, clinical, and epidemiological research, providing therapies, and in many cases extending lives, which is incredible.
We are a world-class university and as such, we need to think globally. Today more than ever, the world is interconnected in so many different ways. In the School of Medicine, we focus on basic discoveries and cures for a multitude of diseases that affect millions of people worldwide
And whatever we learn globally, can certainly help us locally. The current Zika outbreak is a great example of how quickly viruses can travel in the global world we live in. Diseases know no borders.
What other goals do you have for your new role as Vice Dean for Research?
One of my goals is to make UNC the best university in the country for biomedical research. I want to help establish a vibrant, dynamic research-driven School of Medicine. I want us to educate students and fellows, push the boundaries of medical knowledge, and nurture the next generation of scientific leaders.
Right now, we are focusing on three major NIH-directed initiatives that span multiple departments and centers and include a large number of researchers. These are the Precision Medicine Initiative, the BRAIN Initiative, and the Cancer Moonshot. And while those are three large efforts, I believe it’s important to strengthen all research areas because we don’t know what the next big thing might be.
I want both basic and clinical research to remain a priority. All our basic science departments in the SOM are ranked in the top ten on the national level, and we now need to focus on building up our clinical research programs so that we can more rapidly advance fundamental insights into human health and develop future therapeutics.
Our collective efforts will help to transform our state, our nation, and our world, through the work we do as educators, researchers, and clinicians.
By Jamie Williams, UNC Health Care