Ann Mullally, MD, is a physician-scientist who sees patients at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and runs a research laboratory based at BWH. The Mullally lab in the BWH Division of Hematology is investigating the biology and treatment of myeloid malignancies, diseases of blood stem cells that arise in the bone marrow. Mullally’s research focuses on myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPN), which are a group of blood cancers that result in the overproduction of white blood cells, red blood cells and/or platelets. In 2013, researchers identified mutations in an endoplasmic reticulum chaperone protein called calreticulin (CALR) in up to 40 percent of patients with MPN. The Mullally lab recently elucidated the mechanism by which mutations in calreticulin cause MPN. One of the projects the team is currently working on is to understand additional aspects of this pathway to develop new therapeutic strategies to target mutant calreticulin in patients with MPN.
Mullally’s work is funded in part by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She recently shared answers and insights with the LLS about her work, sources of inspiration and experiences as a woman in science. Below are some of her responses.
Q: How would you describe your work to a middle school student?
AM: I work as a doctor taking care of patients who have blood cancers. I also run a laboratory where we study the cells and genes that cause these blood cancers. We work to understand the earliest steps in cancer development and, most importantly, to come up with new and better ways to treat these cancers.
Q: What makes you excited about the work you are doing?
AM: It’s very exciting and immensely gratifying to use a series of experiments to work out some aspect of biology that wasn’t previously understood. I am very fortunate to have exceptionally talented scientists in my laboratory who perform these studies. As a physician, I also find it very fulfilling when our discoveries have positive implications for our patients, particularly with respect to treatment.
Q: What role has mentorship played in your career? Did you have a mentor? Are you mentoring others?
AM: Mentorship has been instrumental in my career. I’ve been fortunate to have had exceptional mentors, both men and women, at every stage of my career development. I am a mentor to the members of my lab, past and present – men and women at all stages of their career development, and I take this responsibility very seriously. I am also a mentor to junior colleagues, many of whom are women. I think it’s extremely important that women support each other and that we view individual successes as a measure of our collective success. Getting to the top of the ladder is undoubtedly important, but equally vital is helping those that follow join you on the ladder and rapidly ascend it too!
Q: Describe your experience as a woman in science. Have you faced any obstacles?
AM: In general, I’ve had a positive experience, although I would be lying if I said it has been universally positive. I think the culture of science can be an obstacle if you let it be. Academic science remains predominantly male, and the dominant “phenotype” for success is stereotypically male. I have sometimes found the culture to be off-putting to the point that at certain times in my career it seemed undesirable to me to work in such a culture. I think we need new and diverse types of role models in science, and increasingly we are seeing them – among both women and men.
I think unconscious bias is also an issue in a field where there is substantial gender disparity within senior leadership, and that group holds decision-making power. In academic medicine, significant gender inequity exists in the recruitment, promotion and retention of female faculty, despite the fact that roughly equal numbers of men and women have been entering medical school for well over a decade now, so clearly obstacles exist there.
Q: What are your tips to help women break the glass ceiling in science?
AM: I love the quote from Nora Ephron, “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”
With this in mind my tips are: Believe in yourself. Strive for excellence in everything you do. Build supportive professional networks (comprising men and women). Cultivate resilience. Take risks professionally. Spend time with people who make you laugh. And, above all, keep going!