Dr. Laurie Glimcher is the physician-scientist who runs one of Boston’s premier teaching hospitals, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. During her early days at Harvard Medical School in the 1970s, she was immediately drawn to the immune system. Glimcher later oversaw a lab focused on immunology, a field increasingly important in the treatment of cancer. At 39, Glimcher got tenure at Harvard and worked there contentedly until she took the job of dean of Cornell University’s medical school in 2012. But she didn’t stay away from Boston for long. Last October, she left Cornell earlier than expected to become chief executive of Dana-Farber, becoming the first woman to head the cancer center. Glimcher, 66, sat down with the Globe’s Priyanka Dayal McCluskey to discuss her career, politics, and the importance of scientific research.
1. Can women have it all? Glimcher, a mother of three, certainly has tried to do that. After graduating from medical school, she was hired as a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. She saw patients full time and worked in a research lab when she had two small children and a husband who worked nights and weekends as a surgical resident. She says she survived that hectic period thanks to help from her parents, who lived nearby. Glimcher, now a grandmother, has advice for young women trying to raise families and advance in their careers.
“Women tend not to speak up for themselves, they tend not to be as aggressive, and they tend to have less self-confidence. It’s important to at least pretend you have self-confidence — even if you don’t. Speak up. Advocate for yourself.”
2. Glimcher’s father was a noted doctor and scientist, but early on she didn’t know that she would follow the same path. Perhaps the signs were there. Glimcher recalls eagerly dissecting a frog she found on a summer vacation when she was 5 or 6 years old — to the horror of her sisters. She loves her time in the lab and has, over the years, uncovered new details about how the immune system works. Glimcher says she has always been willing to delve into challenging and interesting subjects, even those she knew little about.
“I don’t think I was smarter than anybody else, but I did take risks. I didn’t just want to be a good scientist; I wanted to make, if I could, really important contributions to science. The only way you can do that is if you’re willing to take huge risks.”
3. Cancer is too often a fatal disease, but Glimcher believes that through research and experimentation, it can instead become a chronic condition whose symptoms can be treated over time. She compares it to HIV. The spread of that virus was once a deadly epidemic, but now, with the right drugs, patients with HIV can live full lives.
“I think the answer to cancer is going to be the same, although it’s a much bigger problem because every cancer is different and has a unique genetic fingerprint, and there are many different kinds of cancer, and there are many ways in which it can mutate. So we’re going to need to attack it not only with drugs that target the tumor directly, but also by targeting the immune system. We’ve got to figure out what the right combination of those drugs is.”
4. Glimcher joined Dana-Farber just before the 2016 presidential election. Many in left-leaning Massachusetts were shocked by Donald Trump’s victory. At Dana-Farber, patients, employees, and medical students protested when the hospital planned a February fund-raiser at the new president’s swanky Florida club, Mar-a-Lago (Trump has pushed policies many health care providers oppose, including his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act.) Despite the backlash, Glimcher, whose past political donations went to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, did not cancel the event.
“I spent a lot of time talking with individuals who were distressed and upset, and I could understand that, and it was a difficult time. We were in a very difficult position. Nonprofits do not make political statements. We felt ultimately that canceling an event two weeks before it was supposed to take place was a political statement in and of itself. And we are nonpartisan, nonpolitical.”
5. One of Glimcher’s first jobs was at the National Institutes of Health, and she now spends a lot of time advocating for NIH funding. Dana-Farber and many other Boston research centers rely heavily on the agency to fund early-stage studies. (Dana-Farber alone received more than $128 million from NIH last year.)President Trump has proposed slashing NIH funding by almost 20 percent. Glimcher calls that a potential “tsunami.” Research, she says, is the only way to find treatments for terrible diseases and, ultimately, to control health care costs.
“There’s going to be diseases that, if we can’t figure out how to treat them or prevent them, are going to take down our health care system. There’s only one way out for [Alzheimer’s] and for diseases like cancer, stroke, diabetes. We’ve got to figure out how to prevent it, or treat it, or at least to delay its onset. The only way to control our health care costs is through discovery.”