When Laurie Glimcher ’68 ran the Boston Marathon in 2002, she didn’t go it alone. As she made the journey from Hopkinton to Boston, members of her family jumped in to support her for the last half of the race.
First, her sons, Hugh and Jake, took turns running alongside her. The boys were followed by their father, Laurie’s former husband. When his shift was up, Glimcher’s second husband subbed in. Finally, daughter Kalah joined her for those last three, excruciating miles into Copley Square.
That’s when Laurie hit the proverbial wall. “I never knew what that term meant until that moment,” she recalls. But Kalah wasn’t having it. “You’re not stopping,” she told her mom, handing her an orange. “You’re not even walking.”
Shortly after the pep talk, Laurie crossed the finish line. That kind of teamwork—you could say it’s Laurie Glimcher’s trademark. It’s certainly one of the hallmarks of her illustrious scientific career.
“I’m intensely collaborative,” says Laurie, a clinical rheumatologist and pioneering immunology researcher whose discoveries have not just revolutionized her own field, but also lead to advances in osteoporosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer immunotherapy.
Laurie insists her research success is the result not of any extraordinary genius, but of a combination of that collaborative spirit, resilience, curiosity, and creativity. Along the way, she has pulled others up behind her, with a special emphasis on providing the infrastructure in which junior female scientists have access to mentoring, and—arguably more important—funding.
Her insatiable passion for learning and her inclusive style have also been hallmarks of her leadership roles. Her distinguished career has included two decades as the Irene Heinz Given Professor of Immunology at the Harvard School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, serving as senior physician at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital. In 2012, she made the leap from professor to dean, becoming the first woman to lead Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Two years ago, the opportunity to lead the world-renowned Dana-Farber Cancer Institute as president and CEO brought her home to Boston.
“It’s an incredibly steep learning curve, being CEO of a hospital, but I really love steep learning curves,” she says. “You just have to be resilient – you have to know you’re going to fail sometimes. If you are not failing sometimes, then you are not aiming high enough.”
From her 16th-floor office window, there’s a homey patch of green playing fields visible among the gleaming medical research towers.
“I began my career in a lab here [at Dana-Farber] during my fourth year of medical school,” she muses. “Fifty years later and I’m sitting here, looking at Winsor out the window. There’s something about that. I have come full circle.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that she made her mark in immunology, a field she was drawn to from her first year at Harvard Medical School. The immune system, like Laurie herself, runs on collaboration. It comprises of an army of specialized cells that patrol the entire body, ever on the lookout for threats. Sub-types of immune cells play distinct roles; killer cells destroy the bugs that make us sick, while memory cells retain a permanent record of all the diseases we’ve ever been exposed to.
But for Laurie, the central question guiding her exceptionally productive research career has been how do the cells of the immune system distinguish between the body’s own cells and those from invading microbes—and what can go wrong when it fails to make the distinction, as in the case of auto-immune disorders.
“Nobody understood why the immune system would fail to distinguish between self and non-self,” she says. “We still don’t know every answer to that question, even though we know much more now than we did 40 years ago.”
Laurie first began pursuing those answers as a post-doctoral research fellow in immunology at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, focusing on the mechanisms by which the immune system’s T cells—“the brains of the immune system,” as she calls them—orchestrate an immune response to disease-causing microbes.
T-cells recognize other cells by binding to specific proteins on the surface of other cell—something like a molecular secret handshake. Laurie wanted to know more about these proteins, called major histocompatibility complexes or MHC—namely, which pieces of them were most critical to T-cells’ ability to recognize them and mount an immune reaction. To do that, she embarked upon a painstaking process of trial and error. By tweaking cells with mutation-causing agents and observing the downstream effects of the resulting errors, she shed new light on the nuts and bolts of the immune system. But she believes it was the approach as much as the findings that bolstered her reputation as a scientist.
“Those were three terrific years that were incredibly productive for me,” Laurie recalls. “We published a lot of papers, but I really made my early reputation because I took on an extremely risky project which nobody thought would work. And it did work.”
That early success set the stage for the rest of her lengthy, productive career. Returning to Boston—now with two small children in tow—Laurie embarked on a fellowship in clinical rheumatology, spending four days in the clinic each week even as she continued the research she’d started at NIH. Armed with a prestigious NIH R01 grant, she established a tiny, three-person lab at Harvard’s School of Public Health where she was named an instructor. (By 39, she’d be named a full professor, the same age at which her physician-scientist father, Melvin Glimcher, achieved the same status. See “Family Firsts” sidebar.)
In the lab, Laurie and colleagues continued their work on the mechanisms underlying T-cell recognition. But by now, rapid advances in genetic sequencing technology had changed the game. She became interested in not only how the immune system worked on the molecular scale, but also how the genes regulating immunity work. She is perhaps best known in her field for discovering the genetic switches—called transcriptions factors—that control the genes determining T-cells’ fate. This work would have major implications in the ascendant field of cancer immunotherapy, the use of the body’s own immune system to fight off tumors, now revolutionizing cancer treatment today.
“I kept on taking big risks,” she recalls. “Some of them didn’t work and some of them did. I made some really important discoveries. I don’t have a big ego—if anything I lack self-confidence, like so many women—but I just knew I was not going to do safe research. There’s no point in being a scientist if I couldn’t at least try to make major, transformative contributions to the field.”
Today, Laurie is widely recognized for doing just that. She’s a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Medicine. At the age of 50, the same year she ran the Boston Marathon, she was elected to the National Academy of Science, an elite cadre of American scientists to which no more than 25 members are admitted each year.
“It’s not that I’m smarter than anybody else,” Laurie insists. “Or that my depth of knowledge is any greater. In some ways it’s less, because I never got a Ph.D. Instead, I segued into different fields, going where the science led me, sometimes into areas that I knew very little about.”
Today, Laurie still maintains a research lab. But her research has taken a backseat as she puts her curious, creative mind to work finding new and better ways to enable and support other scientists.
Serving as president of the American Association of Immunologists in 2003-2004, Laurie established a program that provided lab technicians for post-docs seeking to balance their careers with parenthood. The support allowed a scientist who was also primary caregiver at home to leave the lab at a reasonable hour without jeopardizing any time-sensitive experiments. It’s a simple, elegant tweak to life in the lab that—as much as her own body of research—could have a major impact on the next generation of scientists.
She is particularly focused on financial support for women scientists. Today, while women obtain biomedical Ph.D.s at the same rate as men, they receive less than a third of public research money, according to a 2018 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.That same study showed, however, that once women obtain initial funding, they are just as likely as their male counterparts to receive further awards and grants throughout the course of their careers. That suggests that early support could even out the playing field.
At Dana-Farber, Laurie raised a million dollars earmarked to support early-career female scientists. Then, she doubled that. The $2 million program is structured to allow young women to train in the labs of more senior female scientists.
“I get tremendous pleasure from fund raising and being able to say to someone, ‘You’ve done such important work, I have a gift for you,’” she says. “I’m so proud of the time I have spent mentoring young women, supporting their work at a key point when they need some money. That’s been very satisfying.”
Writer Jacqueline Mitchell ’92 contributed this profile. She also works in Winsor’s Longwood neighborhood as senior science communications manager at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.