December 18, 2018
Meet the husband-and-wife geneticists dedicated to cancer research — and each other
BY Mary Ann Hellinghausen
It hasn’t stopped being fun yet – and that applies both to their science and their marriage.
Nancy Jenkins, Ph.D., and Neal Copeland, Ph.D., – together – are big in the field of cancer genetics. Both are members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, an honor that puts them in rare company in the scientific world. They’ve co-authored more than 800 papers and have been referenced in medical journals more than 30,000 times – together.
They say the science is just as much fun as when they started more than 38 years ago. And they hope to pass this motivation along to young researchers.
Cancer research model pioneers
Giulio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D., chief scientific officer ad interim and senior vice president for Therapeutics and Discovery, was thrilled when the couple agreed to come to MD Anderson in 2017 as mentors and collaborators, although they no longer run laboratories.
“The knowledge, fresh perspective and inspiration they can share with our trainees and researchers is invaluable,’’ he says.
Happily ever after
The two met 42 years ago, as post-doctoral students at Harvard Medical School. When they married, they made a deliberate decision to run a lab together and do exactly the same kind of science.
“We didn’t want to compete with each other because that wouldn’t lead to happily ever after,’’ Jenkins says.
They also made a conscious decision not to have children so they could focus on their research careers.
“Of the 80 post docs who were on our floor, half were women ... and only two of us ended up staying in academic science,’’ Jenkins says. “We had very few women mentors.”
A contagious passion for science and cancer research
These days, although their offices at MD Anderson are next to each other, they miss sharing office space as they did for more than 36 years.
“When we started working together in 1980, we had one little office to share. We decided we liked the interaction,’’ Copeland says. “But we had to have some rules. The main rule: Don’t talk about science at home.”
Although, it turns out, that rule is often broken.
“It’s energizing to be able to talk to each other immediately when you have an idea,’’ Jenkins says. “Interactions are so important – science doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”
Motivating young scientists
Jenkins notes that the opportunities for young scientists today are extensive.
“I encourage people to go into research but with their eyes wide open,’’ Copeland adds. “Science is a creative discipline. It’s not necessarily smarts; it’s having the right skill set.”
Jenkins says that includes “fierce” independence and confidence, especially for women. And a thick skin when it comes to your research.
“You have to learn to take criticism to heart,’’ Copeland says. “Often, they’re right.’’
Tumor model data available for all
The couple’s research path, which included 22 years at the National Cancer Institute, revealed powerful ways to study how tumors evolve and grow, as well as drug resistance.
The primary tumor model data they generated is included in an analysis and reporting framework called the Sleeping Beauty Cancer Driver DataBase. That data, which is available to anyone, identifies what drives individual tumors or types of tumors.
“We’re strong proponents of giving everything away,’’ Copeland says. “It’s important to us that great science be shared.’’
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.
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It’s important to us that great science be shared.
Neal Copeland, Ph.D.