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Constance Brinckerhoff, Ph.D.: Incurably curious
That allowed her to address something that had always bothered her—the lack of attention given to graduate students in the biomedical sciences. "I really felt strongly that it was important to recognize graduate students as much as possible to the same degree as medical students were recognized," she says. She felt the disparity especially keenly at graduation, when prizes were handed out to the top M.D. graduates. So with support from then-Dean Andrew Wallace, M.D., "we initiated the Strohbehn Award, which is given to the graduate student with the best research track record. It's not just about research. It's about being a good scientific citizen. . . . I'm actually fairly proud of that."
Brinckerhoff began to accumulate honors herself, too. In 1991, she became the first woman at DMS named to an endowed chair—the Oscar M. Cohn 1934 Distinguished Professorship of Molecular Medicine. In 1993, she was appointed to the Nathan Smith Professorship—a chair previously held by a revered former dean, S. Marsh Tenney, M.D. That same year, she cochaired the prestigious Gordon Research Conference, the first one devoted to MMPs. In 1996, she was invited to give Dartmouth's Presidential Lecture—an honor bestowed each year on a single faculty member; she spoke about her favorite topic in a lecture titled "Collagenase and gene expression in arthritis: Does too much of a good thing make joints ache?"
By then, Brinckerhoff had begun to study the way cancer cells may use collagenase to travel to other parts of the body. "It's ironic, because it was just about the same time that I was diagnosed with breast cancer," she says. "I had decided, 'Okay, we've been working with arthritis for a long time, these enzymes are doing more than just destroying joints in arthritis. They're important in mediating tumor invasion and metastasis.' So we started branching out." Her voice drops to a nearwhisper. "And that was about the same time that my sister died from breast cancer and I was diagnosed with breast cancer." Brinckerhoff got her own
Grew up: Swampscott, Mass. (north of Boston)
Education: Smith College '63 (B.A. in biology); SUNY Buffalo '68 (Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology)
Training: Postdoctoral fellowship (in microbiology, with a focus on tumor immunology) at Dartmouth
First paid job: Babysitting
First job in science: Lab technician at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City between college and grad school
Where she met her husband: At summer camp in Maine, when she was 11 and he was 13; they started dating when she graduated from high school and got married right after she graduated from college
Favorite nonwork activities: Biking on Martha's Vineyard, where there are fewer hills; walking; going to the beach
Success in science, believes Brinckerhoff, is "a matter of really loving what you're doing, really being curious."
diagnosis just a week after her sister's death and four months after delivering the Presidential Lecture.
Fortunately, a year of chemotherapy and radiation banished her cancer. And the honors continued to pile up. In 1998, she served for a year as acting provost, succeeding James Wright after he was named president of Dartmouth. Since 2003, she has been the executive editor of the Journal of Cellular Physiology. One of her favorite awards came in 2003, from her undergraduate alma mater: the Smith College Medal for "distinction in teaching and research." Later this year, she'll be designated an American College of Rheumatology Master, one of the organization's highest honors.
Brinckerhoff admits that scientific research requires patience but insists that her curiosity, excitement, and love for her work have driven her success. "I think it's a matter of really loving what you're doing,
really being curious, and just being satisfied by a small piece of information that is enlightening," she says. "And then when you hit a roadblock, [you try] to figure out how you get around that, what's really going on, what are the data telling you."
Anyone who goes into research solely to find new treatments is "probably going to be doomed to failure," she cautions. "It's not going to happen that quickly." So Brinckerhoff looks for and nurtures a sense of curiosity in students, too. "If they don't have it, it's going to be very difficult for them to succeed," she says. "That motivation has to come from within . . . and it's got to be sustained through an awful lot of potentially negative experiences—grants rejected, papers rejected. You have to learn not to take it personally. You've just got to say, 'Okay, what do they wantme to do?How can I fix it?What's next?' Living with rejection is part of being a scientist."
But at the same time, she also realizes that "it's important to recognize the strengths that each individual student has and try and develop those rather than clone yourself."
Though Brinckerhoff now spends less time in the lab than she used to, she recently published a paper in Cancer Research on MMPs and melanoma, the most virulent form of skin cancer. Her lab found that in mice injected with human melanoma cells, inhibiting MMPs prevented the melanoma from metastasizing.
She also advises students, teaches, and gives talks. And she spends a lot of time writing and reviewing grants and papers, trying to impress on students and colleagues the importance of good writing. She's a very good writer herself. An article she wrote for the March 2002 issue of Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology—"Matrix metalloproteinases: a tail of a frog that became a prince"—is a compelling story of two scientists who discovered how tadpoles lose their tails...
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Laura Carter is Dartmouth Medicine magazine's associate editor.
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