A National Portrait

Five Questions

for Amy Wagers

Amy Wagers
Associate Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, Joslin Diabetes Center, Harvard Medical School; Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, Harvard University; Early Career Scientist, Howard Hughes Medical Institute 

What sparked your interest in stem cell research?

As an undergraduate, I registered to become a bone marrow donor, and almost became one a few years later, while in graduate school. That experience got me interested in learning about bone marrow transplants. After reading about stem cell biology, I decided that was the direction for me.

What are some misconceptions about the field?

Stem cells hold tremendous promise for improving human health, but they aren’t the “magic bullet” for disease that some people consider them to be. Research and discovery are critical to realizing their full potential and appropriately applying them to human therapy. Such efforts take time, but even though progress can seem frustratingly slow, it’s critically important that we get it right.

Have there have been moments in your work when you’ve had to take risks?

Someone once said, “leap and the net will appear,” which I think describes the way of science. You have to come up with the best idea you can, but at some point, you just have to act. It’s similar to skydiving—at some point, you’ve got to jump because you can’t climb back down.

I understand you skydive and that you have taken trapeze lessons. What inspired those hobbies?

As a postdoc, I was working in the lab close to 24/7, either on projects or fellowship applications. One application asked what I did in my spare time. I realized I had very little spare time, and I wasn’t doing much with the time I did have. So when a friend mentioned that the Circus School in San Francisco offered trapeze classes, I enrolled.

I began skydiving after my first paper as an independent faculty member was published in Nature. While it was under review, I said how amazing it would be if the journal published the initial paper out of my lab. If it did, I said, “I’ll go skydiving!”

I loved it and decided that I would make it a tradition: skydive after a major paper is published.

How important is it to take time to celebrate?

I learned the importance of marking successes when I was in graduate school. My mentor started the tradition: For every paper we published, we celebrated with champagne. Then he would paste the paper’s title and author on the empty bottle and put it on the shelf in his office. I now follow that same tradition with my students and postdocs. Keeping something from those celebrations reminds you that even when things get tough, there’s a celebration at the end.

Image: John Soares