By Robin Smith
Many scientists have an inkling of their path at an early age, having spent their childhoods breeding hamsters for fun, or conducting backyard experiments on earthworms.
Not so for Duke Provost and cell biologist Sally Kornbluth.
“Science wasn’t a part of my upbringing at all,” said Kornbluth, who grew up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, a small suburb 25 miles outside of New York City. Her mother was an opera singer.
“My mother once played Queen Elizabeth at the Metropolitan Opera. I can tell you she certainly wouldn’t have let us bring something like a worm or a hamster into the house.”
In an October 30 talk hosted by the Duke BioCoRE program, Kornbluth shared this story and the unlikely path she took to becoming a scientist and the lessons she learned along the way.
As an undergraduate at Williams College, Kornbluth majored in political science. She remembers leading a tour group through the science quad as a freshman tour guide and thinking, “I’ll never take a class here.”
“The only reason I signed up for my first science course — a class on human biology and social issues taught by a professor named Bill DeWitt — was I thought it would be a relatively painless way to satisfy the graduation requirements,” she said.
Things changed once she started the course. “That’s when I realized, wow, science is about asking interesting questions and solving puzzles and finding out how things work. Having a set of facts was only the starting point.”
She describes DeWitt as the best teacher she’s ever had. “The impact of teachers who influenced me along the way was really profound,” she said.
After graduating from college in 1982 she considered applying to medical school. But then she received a scholarship to go to Cambridge University in England for two years, where she earned a second bachelor’s degree in genetics.
“One of the formative things about that time was we were forced to read a lot of journal articles. The science textbooks I’d read gave the impression that experiments always work so cleanly and beautifully. But reading scientific papers helped me realize that things aren’t as neat, and not everyone agrees with each other.”
She also learned a lesson about remembering the big picture.
“Especially if you’re doing experiments that are long and involved, you have to be motivated by the idea behind the experiment, not by the actual physical things you’re doing every day, because often they’re pretty mundane. When you’re doing lab work in molecular biology it’s hard to get excited about doing one hundred mini-preps.”
Kornbluth took these lessons with her to graduate school. She earned a Ph.D. in molecular oncology from Rockefeller University in 1989, and did postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Diego.
She joined the Duke faculty in 1994, along with her husband, Daniel Lew, Ph.D., both as professors of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke Medicine.
“We got lucky because we both worked on aspects of the cell cycle, which was a super hot field at the time,” she said.
Her recent research aims to identify the molecular signals that tell tumor cells to divide or die, which may help explain why some cancers fail to respond to chemotherapy. The work could point to new ways of overcoming drug resistance in breast, pancreatic and other cancers.
For Kornbluth, one of the biggest joys of being a scientist is the camaraderie and the collaborative nature of the work. “Maybe that’s why I went into administration,” she says.
Kornbluth served as vice dean for basic science at Duke Medicine from 2006 to 2014.
This June, she succeeded 15-year-veteran Peter Lange as provost, the chief academic officer at Duke. She is the first woman to hold the post.