How family tragedy gave rise to a world-leading cancer biologist

Smiling woman in a suit sitting at an angle in front of lab equipment
Joan Brugge

As a teenager, Joan Brugge, the Louise Foote Pfeiffer Professor of Cell Biology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, expected to become a math teacher. Then her sister developed a fatal brain tumor and Brugge shifted to devote her career to uncovering the fundamental workings of cancer.

Now a world-renowned cell biologist, Brugge investigates how cancers form, spread and become resistant to therapy. Whether she's probing the startling variety of cells within tumors or building 3D models to study cancer development in structures that more closely resemble the human body, Brugge continues to illuminate cancers of the breast, ovaries, lungs and more.

In this episode, Brugge tells the story of her path into cancer biology and discusses her latest endeavors. She also shares her thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing the field today and the skills she believes will best serve the next generation of cancer researchers.

Brugge is co-director of the Ludwig Center at Harvard Medical School, which brings together researchers across disciplines to overcome barriers that prevent the development of effective cancer therapies.

Note: This interview was recorded before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Download the full transcript [PDF].

Episode guide:

  • 0:03 Introduction
  • 1:20 Diverted from math by sister's illness
  • 3:55 Major discovery as a postdoctoral researcher
  • 6:05 Finding a balance between work and family
  • 7:25 Sojourn into biotechnology and back to the lab
  • 10:35 Building 3D models to study tumors
  • 13:10 Current investigations in ovarian and breast cancers
  • 18:40 Lung cancer research and the paradox of antioxidants
  • 21:35 Interdisciplinary collaboration and skills for future researchers
  • 25:50 Hopes for new discovery
  • 28:35 Conclusion

Producer: Rick Groleau

Music: "Fairy Dust" by Velvet Ears 3 via Extreme Music

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