Investing in the Future: An Interview With Judith Gasson, PhD

Judith Gasson, PhD
Professor and Director Emerita and Senior Advisor to the David Geffen School of Medicine for Research and Innovation, University of California, Los Angeles

Judith Gasson, PhD, the 2020 ASH Mentor Award recipient for basic science, shares her three simple rules for running a lab and her thoughts on mentoring young scientists.


What drew you to hematology when you started your scientific career?

As a graduate student and post doc, I was interested in hormones and hormone-like substances that travel throughout the body to regulate homeostasis but go awry in different disorders. When I was thinking about starting my own career, I was really interested in the then-newly described hormone-like molecules called cytokines or growth factors.

This was in the early 1980s, and I saw two burgeoning fields to explore: hematopoiesis and neuroscience. Neuroscience, I decided, was going to be excessively complicated, whereas I felt like I could wrap my mind around blood and bone marrow. They seemed accessible to me as a scientist. That’s why I came to UCLA, where the late David Golde, MD, had just set up colony-forming cell assays to measure these substances. I was mesmerized by this work – so much so that I ended up spending my entire career here!

What qualities made Dr. Golde a great mentor?

Aside from his deep and broad understanding of this whole field, Dave had a story for every situation. He was a vastly entertaining storyteller and I still keep his words with me.

Once, I went to his office to ask for his advice on dealing with a colleague whose behavior I found extremely irritating. Dave told me, “Well, don’t you know why he’s doing it? Because you’re reacting to it.” He told me that the next time this colleague irritated me, I should imagine myself as a billiard ball. “You are perfectly round. Your surface is perfectly smooth. No matter what happens, it will just roll right off that billiard ball.” I tried it and it worked; I still think about that image today.

What type of mentor are you?

I truly cared about the people who were in my lab and I felt responsible for them, especially when I was a young assistant professor. Any mentor would like his or her mentees to go out into the world and be more successful than he or she was. That’s how science continues.

I feel passionately that we need to protect and nurture the careers of people at all levels – students, postdocs, junior faculty, midlevel faculty – everyone. I love science and I think it will solve many of today’s problems, as long as we keep investing in the next generations of smart people.

I have stayed in touch with almost all of my fellows over the years. We see each other at medical meetings and grab dinner or just email every now and then. It’s like a long friendship; we may go years without seeing each other, but when we do, we pick up right where we left off.

It sounds like you created a familial atmosphere in your lab.

Yes, I care about my mentees and fellows, and they have to care about each other, too. I had three simple rules in my lab: Show up; do your work; and act right. I expected my lab members to be engaged at every level with our work and to treat everybody at every position with respect and dignity.

I worked with graduate students, postdocs, and fellows in my lab, but I have to say that the fellows and MD/PhD students contributed something incredibly valuable and important to me as a basic scientist. They taught me so much in terms of how our work could translate to patient care. I would like to mention one of my fellows in particular, Michael Lill, MD, who is perhaps best known for pioneering work in bloodless bone marrow transplants for Jehovah’s Witnesses. He passed away in 2018 from cancer. He was a great person and physician. I also owe a great debt to other former members of my lab, including Belinda Avalos, MD, DO, PhD; Lynne Bui, MD; John DiPersio, MD, PhD; Milana Dolezal, MD; Stephen Nimer, MD; Kathleen Sakamoto, MD, PhD; and Yifah Yaron, MD.

When your trainees came to you for advice, what would you tell them?

I’ve made some observations, which have probably been made by generations before me. First, the experiment that gives you an unexpected result is frequently the most exciting experiment. You were hoping for a different answer, but now you have another question: What does this result mean, and where is it going to take me?

Scientific exploration is exciting in and of itself because, for a moment in time, you are the first person to actually know something. That’s what keeps scientists going during the long, tedious times when the experiments aren’t working. Those moments of reward are completely exhilarating.

You find joy in watching your trainees progress in their careers, but what has been your proudest accomplishment in your own career?

I had a great period of running my lab for years, and then, in 1995, I became the director of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Overnight, my scientific family grew to 250 of the hardest-working, most brilliant, and dedicated physician-scientists anywhere on the planet.

Our goal was to conduct truly translational science and drive those discoveries into clinical trials. It was difficult for me to transition from my laboratory to the cancer center, but I was incredibly fortunate to work with those 250 people during an amazing time in cancer research. We went from examining a biopsy under a microscope to staging the disease and choosing among chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. Some patients did well, some didn’t, and we didn’t know why.

By the time I retired in 2015, we had ushered in amazing, targeted therapies that were revolutionizing the way cancer was treated; we had developed valuable screening tools; we found that immuno-oncology research was bearing fruit; and we had data showing that the death rates from cancer were going down. Those 20 years were extraordinary, and I am so grateful to have been a part of the team doing that work at the time.

What challenges do you think are facing today’s young scientists?

The biggest challenge is simple: We don’t have enough jobs in academia for all of the students who are graduating right now. However, we also are at a time when students have an abundance of other opportunities to contribute – everything from intellectual property to biomanufacturing to tech startups to contract research organizations.

This is an area I am working on in my current position. I retired in 2015, but was asked to return to help UCLA develop intellectual property and identify scientists who have made important discoveries that could potentially fill unmet medical needs – of which there are many.

We are trying to facilitate both the translation of those ideas and, ultimately, their commercialization. So, we work with biopharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists to bridge academia and therapeutic development and invest in the future.

ASH Awards Presentation

The ASH Mentor Awards was presented during the ASH Awards Presentation session at the 2020 ASH Annual Meeting on Saturday, December 5, at 3:30 p.m. Pacific time.