How Researcher Perseverance Prevails in the Face of Challenges

Many scientific researchers face challenges in their work and the Covid-19 pandemic has only added to these challenges, but researchers are incredibly resilient and continue to push forward because they know their work will help patients and improve lives.

Today, we are talking to Dr. Jennifer Guerriero, Instructor in Medicine and the Director of the Breast Tumor Immunology Laboratory at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Department of Surgery. Dr. Guerriero is a Komen-funded early career investigator and will talk about some of the challenges she has faced and what has motivated her to push through them.

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero is a Komen Career Catalyst Research grantee and PhD immunologist. She runs an independent Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the Department of Surgery investigating the tumor microenvironment in breast cancer, is the Director of the Breast Tumor Immunology Laboratory at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and is an Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School.


Adam Walker (00:00):
Many scientific researchers face challenges in their work. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to these challenges, but researchers are incredibly resilient and continue to push forward because they know their work will help patients and improve lives. Today. We’re talking with Dr. Jennifer Guerrero instructor in medicine and the director of the breast tumor immunology laboratory at the Brigham and women’s hospital department of surgery. Dr. Guerrero is a Komen funded early career investigator. And we’ll talk about some of the challenges she’s faced and what has motivated her to push through them. Dr. Guerrera welcome to the show.

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (00:39):
Hi Adam. Thanks so much for having me.

Adam Walker (00:41):
I’m so happy to talk with you. So give us a little background, tell us about yourself and your work and your family.

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (00:48):
Sure. I’d love to. So so I’m a breast cancer researcher and immunologist. And so from a very early age, I knew that I wanted to do cancer research. I was intrigued by the mystery of the disease. It seemed like one of the most challenging problems one could undertake. And so I just always was intrigued by by cancer. So I did my undergraduate degree in biochemistry. I went on to get a PhD in molecular cell biology and immunology and pathology. And during that work, I studied the type of immune cell called a macrophage. And so during this time of my PhD, immunotherapy was just starting to get into the news and, and people were, we were seeing these early responses of, of people with what we thought was incurable, metastatic melanoma, and all of a sudden these, these therapies called immunotherapy, which is directed towards a different type of T-cell or a different type of immune cell at T-cell.

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (01:50):
We were able to turn on T cells and make them kill cancer cells. And so this was, you know, a really exciting time. And my PhD studies led to the understanding that there’s other immune cells that can also be activated for anti-cancer therapy. And these are the macrophages that I was just telling you about. And so, you know, 10, 15 years ago when I was getting my PhD, it was just on the cost of getting exciting for immunotherapy. And we were also starting to understand that only certain kinds of cancer we’re going to probably have benefit from, from T-cell immunotherapy. And what we have found in the last decade is that actually breast cancer only derives slight. You know, there’s only a little bit of benefit from immunotherapy. That’s focused on T-cells. So this work on this other type of immune cell macrophages is going to be really important for breast cancer.

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (02:40):
So that’s the work that I’d done during my PhD. Then I went to Dana Farber cancer Institute in Boston, and I continued to study these macrophages and tried to understand how we could utilize these cells that are present in high numbers and in breast tumors to act as a way to facilitate activation of the immune system induced tumor cell killing. And so we identified some novel strategies to do that, and we showed that there was responses in preclinical models of breast cancer. And so during this post-doctoral fellowship at Dana Farber, I started to think about next steps in my career. And so one of the there’s, there’s lots of directions. You can go with it with a PhD and a post-doctoral fellowship. And so one, you know, my dream was to run an independent laboratory. This is, this is a really hard thing to do.

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (03:37):
And I don’t know if, if, if it’s sort of general knowledge, but running your own lab in academia or at a, at a medical Institute, it’s like running your own business. You have to get your own funding. You have to hire your own people. You have to pay your own salary, you have to buy your own freezers. So one of the steps you might take is to apply for early career or transitional grants. And so I applied for funding and Komen funded my work through a mechanism that they call a Komen career catalyst award, which you’d had alluded to in your introduction. And so that award is, is really quite unique because there’s not a lot of foundations or, or funding mechanisms for that real critical time when you transition from your training period to an independent position. And so with that funding in hand I then applied for independent faculty positions, as you know, because you just introduced me.
Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (04:33):
I recently accepted a independent position at Brigham and women’s hospital and the department of surgery where I run a basic research lab, focused on the biology of tumor associated macrophages in breast cancer with a real focus on trying to modulate them to induce anti-cancer therapies, to overcome resistance to chemo or other types of immunotherapy. And so in addition to my new role as an independent investigator, I also wear another hat. I am the director of the breast tumor immunology laboratory at Dana Farber cancer Institute. And I worked together with Dr. Elizabeth Mittendorf, who is a very senior established breast surgeon who actually also has a PhD in immunology. And we, Ron will we consider a translational hub. And so we the lab the breast tumor immunology laboratory collects specimens from clinical trials. So these specimens are blood tissue and even stool.

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (05:32):
So we do research on stools to see what your gut is doing that might, you know, might indicate and help us understand which patients are responding to what patients or what are to what therapies or what might predict response or resistance or even toxicity. And then in my other hat, those are my work hats. I’m also a mom of three and have a devoted husband and so a very busy outside life. But I think that, you know, just in general, this working in the laboratory and being able to ask these really exciting questions and trying to solve these puzzles is, is sort of where I started, you know, many, many years ago and has brought me through to to, to now

Adam Walker (06:21):
I love that. I love that. I know you’re balancing a lot. So what are some of the biggest challenges that you faced as an early career researcher, a working mom, a female in science, and how is the COVID-19 pandemic added to those challenges?
Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (06:37):
Yes. so what I just described, how on my background and where, how I got to where I am, I noted that I just started a lab. So starting a lab is really, really hard. You have to, as I said, get funding, you have to hire your team. You have to buy freezers. You have to, you know, stock your lab among a million other things that you’re trying to do. And that’s a really critical time because you have a belt three years from when you establish your lab to really build your team, get data so that you can apply for large funding mechanisms from the national Institute of health, national cancer Institute, et cetera. If you’re not successful in the first three years, you don’t have the foundation to sort of stand. So I opened my lab in the middle of a pandemic and there was hiring freezes.

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (07:33):
There were we couldn’t even go into the lab. We couldn’t, there was no experiments that were ongoing. There was no movers available. I mean, it just, the list goes on on the hurdles that we faced. So this, I mean, starting a lab is, is hard on itself, but doing it during a pandemic is just not something anyone should ever have to do ever again. And hopefully no one will ever have to go through that. But you know, the challenges that we faced, I think we’re, you know, we overcame overcame them. I still can’t buy a freezer because all of the freezers are being used to store the COVID vaccine. Rightly so. So eco baby in a few months, when there’s some more available, I’ll be able to buy a freezer myself. But so yeah, this has been immensely difficult. I would say that again, you know, the support of Komen and, and having that transitional grants in place has alleviated a little bit of the pressure that you face trying to hire a team and get data and to have funding to, to start your lab. And so, you know, obviously very grateful to have had that in place. I think that being a working mom is hard no matter what. And you add in this craziness of remote schooling and daycare closures, it’s just, it’s, I mean, it’s, it’s

Adam Walker (08:56):
It’s a juggling act, right?

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (08:58):
So COVID clearly added to all of the stresses for all of those things. But I think now I think most people are sort of settled into a schedule and we were fortunate enough to be able to hire a remote teacher, to come into the home, to help the children with school. You know, we’ll be paying for that financially for years to come, I think, but, you know, at least we were able to reduce the stress and, and be able to commit ourselves to our, to our work and not have to worry about the remote schooling as much.
Adam Walker (09:25):
That’s great. So, so you’re juggling a lot, you, as you said, you started in the middle of a pandemic, which was Herculean in, in a task, right? What keeps you motivated and moving forward in the face of just setbacks in general?

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (09:40):
Yeah, I think that’s really important. I mean, clearly it’s the patients. I got my PhD at a basic research Institute that, and I was not in a cancer hospital per se. I mean, clearly my family’s been affected by cancer and I I’ve seen, you know, the, the, the burden that it places on families. But I think that when, now that I have a laboratory that’s in a cancer hospital, it’s even more, you know, inspiring to, to watch these patients. They are so heroic, right. They, they go through these treatments and they, you know, they’re, they’re battling some really terrible things. So I think that being able to see it really makes it real, it makes the research real. It makes it important. And, you know, just because COVID is here, doesn’t mean that breast cancer has stopped, right? Breast cancer is still here and we need to keep the researchers have to keep pushing forward.

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (10:35):
Despite budget cuts, despite that we’re getting, there’s less grants available. You know, I had read something in a journal just recently that said that early career scientists are in jeopardy, that there may not be the next generation of scientists. And I mean, that’s heartbreaking and really obviously quite worrisome because the immunotherapy that I talked about when it was just starting to come to sort of get some publicity that was about 10 years ago, but that was based on decades and decades of work from many, many investigators. And so, you know, it just, the science, it takes to get new drugs to the clinic and, and the, the cell that you study, the macrophage, you know, we’re probably still a decade behind, T-cells just, there’s, you know, in terms of the support and the, the knowledge of the biology of these types of cells, it’s, it’s, you know, it’ll be a decade before we sort of catch up with T-cells and put drugs into the clinic that are going to modulate these T-cells to, to really make a difference for breast cancer patients. So, you know, if there’s no basic science or if there’s limited basic science for the next, you know, decade, that’s going to be really detrimental to, to science in general. So again, these I think donors often ask where, where is our funding going? What is it being used for? And this is one of the ways that, you know, Coleman makes a big difference in, in, in investing in there in the early career scientists, the ones that will spend the rest of their lives, you know, making a difference in, in, in different diseases.

Adam Walker (12:11):
I love that. I love that. So great. So I, I’m just curious, I know you’ve had a lot of setbacks big and small as you started your lab. Do you have, does one come to mind that was especially challenging? And how did you overcome that to lead to like a positive outcome?
Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (12:29):
So publishing manuscripts on your scientific work is, is sort of how you measure your success. It’s how you communicate your findings to the, to the other researchers and to the public. And we were in the middle of revisions for a very prestigious journal, and we only had about two more months left in our a fourth, the deadline to get the data back to the journal so that they could consider it for publication. And so, again, a real critical time for a junior investigator to get this big paper out the door. And so a couple of things happened. We got some data, we worked hard as a team, and then we shut the lab down and we went back to our desks at our own homes. And we just thought about the science. It was like the first time in years where we just thought without any interruptions, right, there was no ongoing experiments.

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (13:18):
We analyze data. We thought about the science. We came up with new ideas. I mean, it was such a productive time to, in the first few months where everything was shut down and we could just focus on thinking and, and the next big thing, I will say that we did get that paper accepted and it was a heroic effort by my postdoc who Dr. Anita Maita, who just you know, was able to get it done. So that was particularly I mean, that was definitely a highlight that we were able to have a positive outcome on that paper that was also work funded by Komen. So another really important you know, contribution by, by Coleman.

Adam Walker (13:58):
I love that. Wow. That sounds amazing. Sounds like you’ve got a great team, great team. Well, it’s all about a great team. You can get a lot done with a great team of people. So so I’m just curious, what advice would you have for other researchers or other, other people that are facing challenges right now?
Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (14:16):
Yeah, so I think in general research is not for the faint of heart. The research is really hard. I think that 99% of what we do is a failure, and I don’t think that’s a negative. I it’s you know, if your hypothesis is wrong, I it’s it’s, I don’t think there’s anything negative about that. I think that you learn from every experiment that you do, but you have to stay motivated and you have to persevere and you have to look at the negative data or the wrong hypothesis and, and grow from that. And I think that a lot of what we’ve gone through with COVID is sort of taking it day by day, getting to thinking about what the negative data means, what we can do next. I think that the incremental advances that we make in the lab, or these are not like the things that are exciting and they’re not publicized. And you know, it’s not the things you see in the movie, but the incremental advances are what gets to the breakthrough. And so, like what I said about immunotherapy being in the news 15 years ago, well, that was based on decades and decades of basic science by many, many groups. So, you know, in the, in our lab, we try to celebrate the incremental advances, not be too discouraged about failures. Try to learn something from every single experiment. And I just, I just think that’s how you learn and that’s how you get better.

Adam Walker (15:36):
I mean, I, I kind of loved that and how that really can apply to a lot of things in life. Right. I mean, it’s like failure is okay. You learn, you move on, you try again. I mean, I’ve, I’ve used, seen as I’m just curious, like, has that affected how you think about your own personal life as well?
Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (15:52):
Yeah, definitely. I think you just have to learn to see the positive and grow from the positive and you just, you can’t focus on the negative. I I’m I’ve always been an athlete. I don’t play basketball. I never have, I’m like five foot three, but there’s this analogy from Michael Jordan who said that, you know, if you miss a basket and you stay in there and you sort of like, you know, sulk or have self-pity the, ball’s already at the other end of the court, right? Like you’ve already, you’ve, you’ve lost your, you have, you have to play defense. Right. So, you know, you have to, okay, you missed, you gotta go, right. Like you gotta go play defense now. So I think it’s important to, to really just keep looking forward and pushing through and, and head down good science all the time. It’s just, you just have to keep going.

Adam Walker (16:38):
Yeah. I love that. I love that. So it’s such great advice. Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like for our listeners to know or anything you’d like to share with us?

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (16:47):
Yeah. I mean, I think that the perseverance is important. It’s I think on a normal day, even without a pandemic running a lab and having kids is really hard and I try really hard to support my female colleagues and you know, I’m so appreciative for the small things that, you know, we get in return or that they give me in return. And I think you can’t be too hard on yourself. There’s only so much time in a day. And for me, I love the science, right. It’s, it’s like a passion. And so I think this is not a job for everyone, but because it’s so easy to me, it’s a puzzle. It’s, you know, it’s so intellectually stimulating. I get to work with some of the smartest, most fantastic scientists and physicians in the world. And to me it’s worth it right?

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (17:34):
The long hours, the late nights, it’s, it’s totally worth it. And a lot of people, you know, they struggle with with long hours or late nights and, and how to balance the being with children, with your children and caring for them. And, you know, I think that your see what you do, and they’re always watching you. And I think it’s important to set a good example for your children. And just as one short story, my eight year old last year, or I guess she was seven, she was awarded the hardest worker award from her gymnastics team. And of course I was so proud of her and just thought, you know, this is, this is so, so great. And she brought the award home and she hands it to me and says, mom, this is for you because you taught me how to be the hardest worker.

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (18:19):
So of course I just like melted, but you know, it sort of just like instilled into me, she’s watching me, right. She’s like watching how I use my free time. She’s watching, you know, my commitment to, to working and, and you know, whether it’s breast cancer researcher or any other profession, right. Your children are watching what you do. And so of course, you know, I spend as much time as I can with them, but I don’t feel like I’m, you know, it’s, I don’t feel like I’m making choices. I have to spend time here. I have to spend time there. I enjoy my job so much that it’s just like a fun thing for me to do. And in my children seem to understand that.

Adam Walker (18:57):
That’s great. That’s great. Wow. What a, what a compliment from your daughter? That’s, that’s amazing. Wow. Well, Dr. Barrow, this has been so great, so inspiring. I really appreciate your perseverance, especially during a pandemic and thank you for the contribution that you’re making to science.

Dr. Jennifer Guerriero (19:14):
Thank you so much, Adam. Thanks for having me.


This episode is sponsored by Dragon Army.