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A defining moment

Cancer epidemiologist Julie Ross, Ph.D., finds energy in collaborating with others. (Photo courtesy of Children's Cancer Research Fund)

Through nearly two decades, a leading pediatric cancer researcher keeps in mind her inspiration as she continues her life’s work

By the time she became a graduate student in epidemiology, Julie Ross, Ph.D., already knew she loved the lab. But a chance visit to an infant’s hospital room helped put her on her life’s path: researching the genetic and environmental causes of cancer, primarily pediatric cancers.

At the time, Ross was working with two pediatric oncologists; one phoned her late. “He called to tell me an infant with leukemia was coming in to have a complete blood transfusion,” Ross recalls. “He said, ‘We’re doing [the transfusion] at 11 or 12 at night, and we’ll have the blood sample waiting for you tomorrow.’

“So I went in at 4 a.m. to get a head start. It was very quiet and dark,” she remembers. The doctors had left the sample in the baby’s room, and the nurses sent her in to pick it up.

“Well, I can’t tell you … you walk into this room, and there this little baby boy is, in the crib with all these monitors . … It really drove it home for me, the importance of why we’re doing this.”

Eighteen years later, Ross—who considered becoming a physician before realizing her zeal for “medical detective work”—still keeps that infant, and clinical practice generally, in mind as she leads groundbreaking research at the Masonic Cancer Center. Professor and director of the Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Research in the Department of Pediatrics, she also puts a premium on supporting up-and-coming researchers who share her passion.

An unprecedented study

Today Ross leads the world’s most comprehensive study on myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a disease in which the body doesn’t produce enough normal blood cells and that sometimes progresses into acute myeloid leukemia. Her NIH-funded study aims to discover what causes MDS and why some patients develop leukemia. It will ultimately include some 700 patients from Minnesota.

“It’s exciting; we have access to data that is unprecedented and has the ability to inform clinical practice,” Ross says.

As part of the MDS effort and in partnership with the Mayo Clinic, she coleads with University oncologist Jeffrey Miller, M.D., a $1.35 million grant to develop pilot studies targeting improved MDS diagnosis, management, and treatment. She’s also working with a Washington University genetics expert to examine the genomes of patients with family histories of MDS.

Energy through interaction

Ross is an ardent believer in “group science”: collaboration with other researchers, physicians, students—from within her field and outside of it—who share her insatiable curiosity and problem-solving drive.

“Real energy comes from working in groups,” says Ross, who holds the Suzanne Holmes Hodder Chair in Pediatric Cancer Research recently established through Children’s Cancer Research Fund. “Working in isolation isn’t conducive to great science, I don’t think. Brainstorming is probably the best part of my job, and that comes from interacting with people in various stages of training.”

Ross’ delight in nurturing junior faculty and postdoctoral fellows—for which she’s earned two mentoring awards—is palpable.

“She’s incredibly generous to those she works with,” says Amy Linabery, Ph.D., assistant professor in Ross’s division and a protégée since 2004. “Both in terms of resources—financial, personnel—and in terms of the time she invests in developing people and projects. She makes a special effort to publicly acknowledge the work of others.”

Another mentee, Logan Spector, Ph.D., struck a similar chord when he nominated Ross for the Carole J. Bland Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award in 2010, which she won.

“At every turn Dr. Ross sought to give me opportunities for advancement, sometimes at a cost to herself,” wrote Spector, now associate professor in Ross’s division.

Spector tries to emulate Ross’s example by approaching his own role as a mentor with equal care.

“Not everybody considers mentoring a privilege of the profession,” Spector says. “One thing I’ve taken from Julie is my open-door policy. If I’m going to take somebody on, they deserve my full attention.”

Besides cultivating young scientists and promising ideas, Ross grows perennials and ornamental trees; she’s a master gardener whose magnolia and Japanese maple take her to “a meditative place.” She also recharges by reading (lately sharing Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow with colleagues) and walking (“I’ll walk for five miles, then come back with bizarre ideas and write them down”).

Though other institutions have tried to lure Ross away, she says there’s much to love about the University. “There are so many good people here. It’s not any one person; it’s the collective energy.

“I’m in a good place.”

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