Blood and Bugs: An Interview With Nancy Berliner, MD, and May Berenbaum, PhD

Nancy Berliner, MD
Chief of hematology and the H. Franklin Bunn Chair of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School
May Berenbaum, PhD
Professor and Swanlund Chair of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In 1971, Nancy Berliner, MD, and May Berenbaum, PhD, met as roommates during their freshman year at Yale University. Fifty years later, they are both leaders in academic publishing: In 2018, Dr. Berliner was named editor-in-chief of Blood and Dr. Berenbaum was appointed editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). ASH Clinical News spoke with Drs. Berliner and Berenbaum about their time at Yale and how they came to serve as editors-in-chief of journals in their respective fields.

Do you remember your first meeting at Yale? How did you come to be roommates?

May Berenbaum: Nancy and I were members of one of the first classes with female students at Yale, which went co-ed in 1969. As entering freshmen, we filled out this complicated form: Do you sleep with the windows open or closed? Do you keep late hours? What food do you like? I assumed the complex solicitation for information was meant to place people with compatible types, but then I realized my roommates were Berlin, Berliner, and Brooks. I thought, I could have figured how that room assignment came about!

Nancy Berliner: One of my first memories of that year was the WYBC radio competition sponsored by Naples Pizza. People had to come up with the name of a favorite celebrity’s favorite pizza. We were in tears laughing and you were there saying, “I got another one!” I believe the winner was Neville Chamberlain’s “Pizza in our Time.”

Dr. Berenbaum: I remember that! I became friends with a few people through that contest and that competition is actually how I ended up transferring into a different residential college. But as freshmen, our suitemates in Vanderbilt (the building reserved for female freshmen) did have interests in common and a few of us were pre-med or biology majors. I don’t remember about the windows open and closed, though.

Dr. Berliner: I actually was not pre-med at that time. I was an English and French combined literature major – so clearly there was an early interest in editing. Around junior year, I looked around and thought, Why am I taking all of these science courses if I’m not going to medical school?

Dr. Berenbaum: I knew I wanted to major in biology, but did not focus on entomology until I took a class during the second semester of freshman year. I took the entomology course because it was the only one to fit my schedule and, eventually, it became my life’s calling.

Tell us about your careers after your undergraduate education. Where did you each end up?

Dr. Berliner: Well, I was on the faculty at the Yale School of Medicine for 20-odd years before coming to Brigham and Women’s.

Dr. Berenbaum: I’m boring. I did my PhD at Cornell University, deposited my thesis, and two weeks later, in August 1980, I joined the faculty of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I have been ever since. In some ways, it’s the shortest resume you’re ever going to see.

Dr. Berliner (third from left) on a recent trip with her family to Mt. Desert Island, Maine.

Has your research focus changed over the years?

Dr. Berliner: Yes, what I’ve done has changed a lot. I started out working on the basic science of transcriptional regulation in neutrophils, then anemia of aging, and now I do mostly clinical research. Actually, a couple years ago, after 30 years of National Institutes of Health–funded research, I closed my lab. The decision was due in part to my Blood responsibilities, but also because I had so many administrative tasks that I felt like I was not doing justice to the people who were training in my lab. For the last couple of years, I was mostly a cheerleader for everybody else’s research, and I realized I could do that without running my own lab.

Dr. Berenbaum: Conceptually, I’m still working on the same research I’ve been working on since I started graduate school: plant-insect interactions. For a long time, it was basic research driven by curiosity, but, as the world became mired in environmental problems, it became a priority for me and the people in my lab to do something useful to help the planet. It sounds like you did something similar, as new technologies and new science opened up all kinds of opportunities to answer questions that were totally intractable when we started school.

Dr. Berliner: It still blows my mind that we were in college when they discovered DNA sequencing. How things have changed.

Dr. Berenbaum: I think Yale made undergraduates feel like they could do anything. I now know that was totally misplaced confidence, but it has been useful to fall back on that sense. I also took the liberal arts education at Yale to heart. The entomology class I took with Charles Remington sparked my desire to communicate science to the general public. I could totally understand why people were afraid of insects because I was terrified of insects, but because of that class, I realized that fear was based in ignorance. That realization made me aware of why people should learn about insects – to understand which insects are truly dangerous (including vectors of human diseases) and why insect research is important for maintaining the quality of human life on earth.

You both share the experience of being women in positions of leadership in scholarly publishing. When did that interest start?

Dr. Berenbaum: For me, it was a compulsion to communicate. My first service as an editorial member was on a specialized regional journal called The American Midland Naturalist. Then I ended up as an editorial board member and then editor-in-chief of Annual Review of Entomology for 21 years. In 1998, I joined the editorial board of PNAS. I was so staggered to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. When I got the phone call notifying me, I almost hung up – I thought it was some cruel and very esoteric joke at my expense. Whatever the organization asked me to do, I did it. In 2018, much to my shock, amazement, and delight, the journal asked if I was interested in being editor-in-chief. I started officially in the position in January 2019, and it has been an amazing experience and an incredible education.

I was initially nervous because of the experiences some women have had in positions of leadership, but I don’t have many horror stories, fortunately.

Dr. Berliner: Medicine is different. I was on the editorial board of Blood quite early. I still remember a meeting where the new editor-in-chief of Blood was asked to comment on the fact that the associate editors he appointed were all men. He said he knew that was going to be unpopular, but there weren’t any suitable women to ask. I was sitting across the table with Nancy Andrews, MD, PhD, one of the leading scientists of her generation. We looked at each other quizzically, but didn’t say anything. It was a different era, but then I thought, “Well, maybe I’d like to be an associate editor of Blood.”

When Bob Löwenberg, MD, became the editor-in-chief of Blood, I emailed him and said, “If you’re looking for an associate editor for white blood cell content, I’d be interested.” We had breakfast at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting that year and he said, “I don’t want you to be an associate editor. I want you to be my deputy editor.” For the first year and a half, I got up every day and wondered, What did I get myself into? Then something clicked and I started to enjoy it. A couple years ago, I applied to be the editor-in-chief.

What do you enjoy about serving in these roles?

Dr. Berenbaum: I most enjoy the opportunity to write editorials that people actually read and that might influence their thinking about science in general.

Dr. Berliner: One of the most fun aspects in my position is putting together review series and viewpoint articles. I enjoy when we get to put our heads together every year and try to come up with new topics for people to learn about. Now, it’s become easier because everybody wants to publish in Blood. I also like the fact that I see almost everything that goes in the journal.

Dr. Berenbaum: I can’t say the same. We get more than 20,000 submissions a year. It would be impossible for me to read everything.

Dr. Berenbaum with her husband and daughter at the 2014 National Medal of Science ceremony at the White House.
Dr. Berenbaum during her freshman year at Yale, with her brother Alan, a Class of 1973 graduate.

As editors-in-chief, how do you handle difficult editorial decisions?

Dr. Berliner: We implemented online “chat rooms” that allow our associate editors to converse and be assured that they are making consistent and well-considered decisions.

Dr. Berenbaum: The publishing world is changing, in some ways for the better and in some disappointing ways. We just hired a staff member who’s overseeing ethics and image manipulation. Our editorial board members are members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). When there is any kind of scientific question, we have the experts to answer them. I have great confidence in them. Every paper we publish represents a judgment by a member of NAS, so I could not ask for better backup.

I will say that we are limited in our representation of women and minorities because our pool is limited and reflects the composition of the NAS membership. We are trying to diversify within those limitations, but we can only do that at the rate at which the Academy diversifies. The Academy is making all kinds of efforts, but this is an organization that began in 1863 – there’s a lot of inertia. To accelerate that progress, we’ve also identified other forms of underrepresentation on our editorial board, including geographic underrepresentation and institutional underrepresentation. We’re trying to diversify geographically because, frankly, scientific challenges differ with geographic location.

Dr. Berliner: It’s not quite as difficult for us to get women on the editorial board, which makes it more embarrassing that we had to make a concerted effort to diversify. Last year, we set a benchmark that the makeup of the editorial board had to match that of the ASH membership. We were very aggressive about recruiting women to the board. We’re at about 40% now, with which we are very pleased. We are also conscious of which reviewers are asked to write commentaries for articles designated for comment and have made a real effort to increase the representation of women in that group. I have to say, though, that it has proven difficult to get solid statistics about the diversity breakdown because the baseline information on gender is not generally available in our database.

Dr. Berenbaum: That baseline information is critical because you can’t tell what progress you’re making if you don’t know what your starting point was. In some ways, I don’t think people were aware of the magnitude of the problem until making an effort to get the metrics. It is clear that, after multiple studies, including by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, barriers for women and underrepresented minorities exist. There is no single, easy fix to remedy those issues, but diversity is important to the quality of the science. When we were starting out, I don’t think that concept even crossed anybody’s mind.

Dr. Berliner: I went to high school during the beginning of the second women’s movement. I always assumed that, by the time I had finished my education and was a professional, equality for women would be taken care of. That just goes to show how naive I was in high school. Today, the paradigm of medicine is still male. Anything that deviates from that paradigm is immediately suspect, which is not to anyone’s advantage, especially the patients.

Dr. Berenbaum: That’s true even with model organisms. How many medical studies have been done with exclusively male rats? Results of such studies are highly constrained. Change has been incremental and slow, but the change that has occurred is promising. Raising awareness and sharing knowledge are the most important things. We are both in the business of disseminating evidence-based knowledge, and it’s an honor and a privilege to be in that business.