Female U profs pave way in cancer research

Wendy Gordon, the 2016 Pew Scholar in Biomedical Science, is just one of the University’s female cancer researchers.

Melissa Steinken

Researchers at the University of Minnesota are developing new methods for cancer cell research.

Wendy Gordon — assistant professor in biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics — works with light-emitting sensors that measure how lung and bone cancer proteins respond to force on cells. Eventually, this work could be applied to breast cancer proteins as well.

After an extended post-doctoral career at Harvard Medical School, Gordon came to the University and was named a 2016 Pew Scholar by The Pew Charitable Trust in Biomedical Sciences.

She said prolonged post-doctoral work — which she spent nine years doing — is usually looked down on in the science community, but it gave her the ability to balance her personal and work life. She chose to stay at Harvard so she could live in Boston with her husband and children.

“I think it shows younger graduates and post-docs that you can do it all,” Gordon said. “You can have a family and work in science.”

At the University, Gordon’s team includes herself and two graduate students, a small team for their work.

She and her team use “tension sensors” that detect the red and green light emitted by cancer proteins. The sensors measure the distances between proteins based on the colors they display.

Using the sensors, the team can tell whether a cell is detecting its environment correctly. If not, the protein could grow incorrectly or in the wrong place, Lovendahl said. These errors cause abnormal cancer tissue.

Fewer researchers in the lab means more one-on-one advisor time, but there are challenges to working in a small group. For instance, Gordon’s team lacks experts in other disciplines and often doesn’t have enough hands to follow all of its project ideas, said Amanda Hayward, a fourth-year graduate student in Gordon’s lab.

Female scientists researching cancer cells

Gordon isn’t the only cancer researcher at the University using pioneering methods.

Carol Lange, professor of medicine and pharmacology at the University, studies how hormone receptors affect breast cancer as well as cancer-causing gene mutations.

Lange’s current paper focuses on how the hormone progesterone contributes to growth of stem cells that cause reoccurring cancer.

And Laurie Parker, associate professor in biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics, said she focuses her research on making tools to study leukemia cells.

Despite progress in their fields, Lange and Parker both said they’ve faced barriers in their careers because they are females.

Lange said she has seen men working the same job who have made up to $10,000 more than her per year.

Parker said she was sometimes treated like she didn’t know what she was doing when starting her post-doctoral career at the University of Chicago, an experience Lange and Gordon also faced.

“It’s like imposter syndrome,” Parker said. “I never quite feel like I’m credible in what I’m doing.”