The path of true research never ran smooth, or in a linear direction. Some of us make it to and through a PhD and then out of research, others leave academia, it’s really a relatively small number that ends up there. Life outside academia can be full of extraordinarily wonderful opportunities: for research, for building things, as our next curator’s amazing career shows. We are delighted to welcome Dr Joanne Kamens (@JKamens), Executive Director, of AddGene (@addgene), a not-for profit biological resource centre (BRC), to Real Scientists.
Joanne trained as a geneticist at Harvard, after which she moved into pharmaceuticals and worked for BASF/Abbott for 15 years. She then went on to work at RXi and is now with AddGene. AddGene is a unique biological resource centre: like the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), which is a repository of all the cell lines used in tissue culture: AddGene does the same for plasmids, the small DNA vectors that can be used to transmit information between organisms. It’s a great resource for scientists, you can read about it here at Nature. AddGene and the ATCC are just two examples of the kinds of resources scientists need to do their research. Adequately funding and maintaining these collections is also a major challenge in science policy.
Joanne has also been extensively involved in activism for Women in Science and diversity in science issues, founding a number of support organisations and winning awards like the
To get to know Joanne better, we asked her our usual questions:
Why/How did you end up in science?
I usually think a scientist is something you are, not something you do. I was a young math geek (very unusual for a girl in Minnesota in the 70’s) and was good at science in school. As for many young people, I had a great 10th grade genetics teacher who encouraged me. I had my sights on Med School but one semester in college, and I knew it was the basic research science that had hooked me.
Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?
I loved genetics from the start. It was so predictable and in college I took a grad level seminar on all the “classic” papers in the field of genetics. When I got to Grad School I did my research in a lab that focuses on molecular biology tools and tricks for research. My lab was one that developed the yeast two-hybrid system to use genetics to study protein interactions. My advisor was the first person to fuse to pieces of a protein together and show that both could work (seems so obvious in this day and age, but many told him it would not…it became a classic and famous Cell paper). Now at Addgene I get to think about molecular biology technology all day and I still love it. While in Pharma I did 15 years essentially as a molecular immunologist. Immunology is fascinating and complicated. I loved learning this field. Like all scientists I think, what drives me is learning new things. As long as I am doing that I am happy.
Tell us about your work?
Now I am the Executive Director of Addgene. That is like being the CEO in non-profit lingo. Addgene is a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating research and discovery by improving access to useful research materials and information. We fulfil this mission by helping scientists share plasmids (small useful circles of DNA) to collaborate. My work is awesome because the 40 Addgenies I work with are awesome and scientists all over the world love us. I will tweet more about Addgene, but we deliver plasmids to 78 countries currently at a rate of about 450 plasmids/day.
Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research?
An enormous amount of research resource is wasted world wide and we can’t afford this if we are going to cure human diseases better and faster. Say you are in Qatar studying diabetes..why should you wasted time remaking a plasmid with insulin on it when someone in Australia already did. Addgene helps you find what you need (we have 35,000 different items so far) and then make sure you can access that plasmid. We solved a lot of problems for the scientific community which is why they appreciate us. “I’ve always considered myself a scientist first even now that I am in management and operations [at Addgene].”
Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?
For over 15 years I have been advocating for equity and diversity in science and in the workplace. I am especially active in women in science, but wish I could do more for all diversity if I had more time. I founded the current Boston chapter of the Association for Women in Science. I was Director of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Boston Group Mentoring Program for 3 years and still work with this program. I am very enthusiastic about what good mentoring can do especially peer mentoring. I will tweet about my blogs on this topic. In 2010, I was honored with the Catalyst Award from the Science Club for Girls for longstanding dedication to empowering women in STEM. In 2013 I became a Fellow of the Massachusetts Academy of Science recognizing scientific accomplishment and service to the science community. In 2013, I was named one of PharmaVoice’s 100 Most Inspiring Commanders & Chiefs. I serve on a number of other nonprofit boards and I speak widely on career development topics in person and via Webinar. I currently blog at blog.addgene.org
Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?
I am addicted to New York Times Crossword puzzles. I read modern fiction and occasional nonfiction somewhat voraciously as time allows.
How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)
Tough..I love my work so often a day off is finishing up some work stuff and then reading a good book in a beautiful place. I just got back from a vacation in Greece and the views on the islands of Crete and Santorini are indescribable.
You can also listen to Joanne talk about her work on The Postdoc Way podcast.
“I did not need to pipette to be happy. What makes me happy is looking at data.”