By Special to The New Tri-State Defender
At the busy intersection where science and humanity connect, Karen E. Nelson, Ph.D., is leading discoveries that may affect the lives of people in every corner of the world.
Nelson is president of the renowned J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a world leader in genomic research with more than 250 scientists and staff, more than 250,000 square feet of laboratory space, and locations in Rockville, MD, and La Jolla, CA.
A prominent microbial physiologist who quickly grew into the role of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) executive, Dr. Nelson led the team that published the first human microbiome paper. Since then, the world has taken note of the meteoric rise of this native Jamaican in an industry heavily dominated by males.
Dr. Nelson’s soaring profile takes on even more prominence as STEM equity continues to emerge as “a critical civil rights concern.” According to Advancing Equity through More and Better STEM Learning, a February 2015 report by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, “only 2.2 percent of Latinos and 2.7 percent of African Americans have earned a degree in the natural sciences of engineering by the age of 24.”
Noting that more and more of the jobs being created today require a STEM background, the report concluded that “a scarcity of AP classes, qualified teachers, funding, and resources in underserved schools have effectively locked students out of opportunities in crucial, well-paying fields like computer science, engineering, and defense.”
The issue is not just that minorities or women may not consider STEM careers; often it is that they can’t always find the role models and mentors who can guide them toward successful careers, Dr. Nelson says.
“There are many people out there with brilliant minds, and we need them all in the STEM field,” Dr. Nelson says. “From a science and biological perspective, when you are talking about diabetes and genetics, you have to have women and minorities to push their own science — so their issues get the attention they need.”
Treatment “tailored to the individual”
By sequencing DNA from individual cells and studying bacteria and a variety of microbial species that live on and in the body, researchers at J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) are changing the way medical professionals look at humans, prompting them to explore symbiotic relationships and to consider how big and small things — such as organs and bacteria — actually relate to each other.
“The scientists at JCVI are engaged in basic science research that has the potential to change society,” says Dr. Nelson.
Scientists now know that the human body is teeming with a variety of microbial species, a community that is known as the human microbiome. Everyone is born with trillions of microbes: the central question is how these colonies, which include bacteria, viruses and fungi, function and ultimately affect human health and disease.
The National Institutes of Health Human Microbiome Project (HMP) was launched in 2007. The $175 million, five-year effort aimed to study the many microorganisms that live in and on the human body, such as in our mouths and on our skin. This important body of work is laying a foundation for precision medicine, an approach that will enable health care providers to tailor treatments and prevention strategies to unique characteristics of an individual, such as their genome sequence, diet and health history.
President Barack Obama is a true believer in the science.
“Doctors have always recognized that every patient is unique, and doctors have always tried to tailor their treatments as best they can to individuals,” he says. “You can match a blood transfusion to a blood type — that was an important discovery. What if matching a cancer cure to our genetic code was just as easy, just as standard? What if figuring out the right dose of medicine was as simple as taking our temperature?”
When Dr. Nelson delivered a presentation last year in India, 1,000 people tried to squeeze into the room. And when President Obama unveiled his Precision Medicine Initiative in 2014, she sat in the audience of distinguished scientists and health care professionals at the White House.
On the horizon is a game-changing moment, the kind of breakthrough that illuminates the groundwork laid by scientists as well as a seismic shift in daily life.
“The idea is that someday everybody will have medical treatment that is tailored to the individual,” Dr. Nelson says. “So that my blood pressure medicine is not the same as your blood pressure medicine because we probably have genetic backgrounds that make us have different needs.”
JCVI and similar organizations are providing a glimpse into how today’s science-driven organizations are finding societal solutions, such as JCVI’s sustainable lab on the campus of the University of California, San Diego.
Research laboratories — in particular genomic-focused ones — traditionally consume large quantities of energy to run both energy-intensive scientific equipment and for heating and cooling, Dr. Nelson explains. The conservation-conscious facility actually seeks to be “net zero” for electrical energy, which means it seeks to produce as much electricity on-site as it consumes. It also was built to be the first carbon-neutral laboratory facility in the world.
“In the end, the goal is to make life better,” Dr. Nelson says.
Someone “who will believe in you”
Karen Nelson’s quest to understand how things work began at age seven when a teacher assigned her class the task of planting seeds in soil, and then placing the pots in sunny spots as well as shady places to determine how nutrients and sunlight would impact growth.
“I still remember doing that, and learning something significant, and just thinking about what it all meant,” she said.
That experiment hooked her on science. She went onto to earn her B.S. in Animal Science from the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago; her M.S. in Animal Science from the University of Florida, Gainesville; and her Ph.D. in Microbiology from Cornell University. After encountering microbiology, her interests were piqued, and that passion eventually led her to the JCVI’s legacy organization, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR).
With the help of “positive, supportive mentors, and hard work,” Dr. Nelson emerged as a leader in her field. “I realized early on that education is the one thing that people can’t take away from you,” she says. “Coupled with my curiosity, and a little bit of luck meeting the right people, I have been able to do well.”
The author or co-author of more than 150 peer-reviewed publications and the editor of three books, Dr. Nelson is currently editor-in-chief of the international journal, Microbial Ecology. She also serves on the editorial boards of BMC Genomics, GigaScience and the Central European Journal of Biology. She is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences Board of Life Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, an honorary professor at the University of the West Indies, and a Helmholtz International Fellow.
Prior to her appointment as president in 2012, she held a number of other positions at JCVI, including director of JCVI’s Rockville Campus, and director of Human Microbiology and Metagenomics in the Department of Human Genomic Medicine.
As president, Dr. Nelson juggles multiple responsibilities, serving as leader, fundraiser, scientist and role model. As she travels the globe sharing JCVI’s findings, she is on the lookout for promising talent.
“I represent an organization that is one of the best in the world. People helped me along the way and I want to give back however I can,” Dr. Nelson says. “I can now connect talented individuals with the right people, which means that someone cared enough to make a connection.”
Twenty years after Dr. Nelson entered the industry, she still stands out as a woman and a person of color when she attends global conferences. Data provided by Change the Equation, a coalition of Fortune 500 companies focused on increasing STEM education, reported in 2015 that the STEM workforce was no more diverse that year than it was in 2001.
“I started in 1996, when there was a huge shortage of women and minorities in the field. It has not improved since that time in my opinion. I still think there is something wrong with the system,” she says.
JCVI is not waiting on the sideline for change. It has linked up with high schools and colleges to provide hands-on learning opportunities that pique curiosity and promote discovery. Additionally, its Genomics Scholars Program (GSP) helps smooth the transition from a community college to a four-year college by using a combination of activities. The program has proved beneficial to all stakeholders, according to Dr. Nelson, who adds, “I think community colleges are fabulous!”
She sees the mentoring component provided to area community college interns as especially important. Before researchers can succeed, they often fail, and then learn from these failures.
“A scientist needs the ability to handle rejection,” she says. “Your paper is not always going to get published. Your grant might not get funded. It is not always going to be perfect. Sometimes it is tough. And you just need someone who will believe in you.”
Dr. Nelson looks forward to welcoming the young scientists exiting the pipelines that carry talent from college into the STEM workplaces.
“I am really excited about the next generation of scientists,” she says. “They care about social causes. They are really about getting the message out, and trying to educate people.”
(This story is a variation of a version that first appeared in the Pathways magazine, produced by Community College of Philadelphia, and is published here with the College’s permission.)