July 11, 2022
Myelodysplastic syndrome researcher: Leaps of faith led to my career at MD Anderson
BY Simona Colla, Ph.D.
Growing up in Italy, I found my happy place with science. Even when dealing with a challenging home life, science offered an escape. But I didn’t get my start in research until later in life.
Now, as a principal investigator with my own lab at MD Anderson, I work with a talented group of researchers focused on myelodysplastic syndrome, specifically how it develops and becomes resistant to treatment. My lab is my life.
I’ve been fortunate enough to turn my passion into my career, thanks to a few chance encounters and leaps of faith.
Early interest in science leads to something bigger
Physics and math have always come easily to me, and I was one of the top students in my college. Unfortunately, scientific education in Italy was limited, and after graduation, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life.
My father was an electronic engineer and so is my now-husband. I knew I didn’t want to pursue that path, even though I understood the concepts. My husband casually mentioned his mother had studied biology and really enjoyed it. He suggested I give it a try, too.
That suggestion changed everything for me.
I studied biology and hematology at a small university in Parma, Italy in my 30s. Learning about cells and how they work fascinated me. Although I was able to publish some of my research there, I knew I would need to look for opportunities in the United States to further my research.
A move to the U.S. leads to new opportunities
In 2005, I took a position in Little Rock, Arkansas, to work under one of the leading multiple myeloma researchers at that time. I enjoyed conducting much more in-depth research. I stayed there for two years before moving back to Italy to be with my husband.
It only took a few months to realize that I needed to go back to the U.S. to further my career. With few connections there, I decided to send a few emails to researchers whose work I was familiar with.
One of those emails was to Ronald DePinho, M.D., who led a lab in Boston at the time. I’d never met him, but we met for an interview at the airport in Naples, Italy, a few months later. He offered to let me work in his lab for three weeks to see how I liked it.
I loved it and jumped at the opportunity to stay. I was also grateful my husband was able to find work in Boston so he could be with me.
A move to MD Anderson
Under DePinho’s leadership, I thrived in Boston for the next three years. I was even co-first author on a paper accepted by Nature, one of the biggest medical journals in the world.
Then one day, he told the lab he was moving to MD Anderson and invited us to join him. It was another big decision for me professionally. If I decided not to go, I’d lose the opportunity with Nature, but my husband and I had made Boston home. We ultimately decided that he would stay in Boston and I would move. That was 12 years ago, and we’re still happily married, despite living across the country from each other.
Moving to Houston was challenging at first. I don’t drive, so I ride my bike everywhere. And the heat of the Houston summer was eye-opening. But once again, taking a leap of faith meant even more opportunities for me to follow my passion.
A transition from multiple myeloma to myelodysplastic syndrome research
At MD Anderson, I was researching hematopoiesis and telomere dysfunction in DePinho’s lab when one of our mouse models developed myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). That’s when I met Guillermo Garcia-Manero, M.D., who leads myelodysplastic syndrome research at MD Anderson.
As I started collaborating with him, I knew this was an area I wanted to pursue, so I wrapped up my multiple myeloma research to focus on myelodysplastic syndrome full-time.
The collaboration with Garcia-Manero is what has kept me here for so long.
Starting my lab to study myelodysplastic syndrome development and prevention
I opened the Colla Lab to continue studying myelodysplastic syndrome in 2014. Patients with MDS who don’t respond to standard treatment options often only live four to six months. Through our research, we’re hoping to better understand why these treatments fail and what we can do to extend survival for patients.
I’m also interested in understanding how we can prevent MDS from developing in the first place. My lab is working with Katy Rezvani, M.D., Ph.D., and her team to identify changes in the immune system that lead to natural killer cell dysfunction, which can lead to MDS.
I am also working with Philip Jones, Ph.D., and his team at the Institute for Applied Cancer Science (IACS) to develop a drug targeting a particular pathway that drives anemia in patients with MDS. These fantastic collaborations enable me to learn more.
I’m lucky to work with researchers who are as invested in the science as I am. The way I see it, science can’t be successful with just one person. Working together with other researchers leads to much more robust results.
Advice for future cancer researchers
Even though I didn’t get my start in research until later in life, I’m so grateful to be able to do what I love every day. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t taken those chances along the way.
I tell my lab members: you’ve got to love what you do. There will be hard days, you’ll get papers rejected and you may be denied grants, but if you’re passionate about science and persist through the hard times, you will be successful.
And that’s even more true at a place like MD Anderson. We have state-of-the-art facilities, plus funding and grants we wouldn’t have access to elsewhere. Most importantly, the support I receive from my colleagues at MD Anderson is like nowhere else.
That’s why I’m here – and why I don’t see myself doing anything different any time soon.
Learn more about research careers at MD Anderson.
If you’re passionate about science, you’ll be successful.
Simona Colla, Ph.D.