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  • Sophie Arthur

Life Sciences Awardee 2020: Professor Zena Werb

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

“They wouldn’t let me go [on the summer field trip] because I was female” – Werb, 2010

Professor Zena Werb was a world-renowned cell biologist, whose pioneering work helped to unravel the communication between cells and their immediate environment, the so-called microenvironment. The crosstalk between tumour cells and their microenvironment is now recognised as a hallmark of cancer – a biological characteristic that cancer cells must overcome in order to grow.

Sadly, Professor Werb passed away in June this year. She will be remembered not only for her outstanding scientific legacy, but also for her role as a supportive mentor of numerous scientists in training.

Werb’s parents had been separated before she was born in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany in 1945. Unable to return to their native Poland, they overcame many challenges as post-war refugees. They eventually reunited in northern Italy, before immigrating to Canada, where Werb grew up on a farm.

Speaking to Disease Models and Mechanisms in 2010, Werb discussed her ‘rocky’ start with science. “I was initially interested in geology and geophysics and wanted to understand situations like earthquakes. I was eager to go on a summer geology field trip to the Rocky Mountains. I was one of the top two students in my class, but they wouldn’t let me go because I was female. They said that there were not the proper facilities on site for women. Instead, I found a summer job in the field, and actually got paid for the experience I gained [1].”

Having realised that she would probably encounter a lot of roadblocks pursuing geology, Werb decided that a career in biochemistry made more sense. “Back in the 60s, the field of biochemistry was still quite male oriented, but I never had the sense that taking a course

could be a barrier for me. Even if there was some prejudice, it seemed that the quality of my research and my ability to do it would allow me to advance. Also, there were already a few female faculty members in biochemistry [1].”

“Zena celebrated science”

After receiving her PhD in Cell Biology from Rockfeller University, Werb worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the Strangeways Research Laboratory in Cambridge, UK, before taking a faculty position at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in 1976. In the decades that followed, Werb made game-changing discoveries in the field of cell biology.

Werb’s early research explored the interactions between cells and proteins, and ultimately led to some highly influential insights into tumour formation and spread by a group of enzymes called matrix metalloproteases (MMPs). In the 1990s, Werb continued to make huge contributions to the field. A particular highlight, was her involvement in helping to identify inflammation as a hallmark of cancer; work which still informs the development of cancer therapy today.

In the final 20 years of Werb’s career, she researched the spread of breast cancer cells and investigated how this could be halted. “Zena celebrated science,” Professor Valerie Weaver, director of the UCSF Center for Bioengineering and Tissue Regeneration, told Suffrage Science. “She cared about doing good science,” Weaver, one of Werb’s closest collaborators and friends, told us. Werb’s dedication to the field is evidenced by the huge number of citations her work has received, and the many accolades she was awarded. “She was particularly proud of her membership in the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine,” Weaver said.

“One of her favourite lines to worried colleagues was ‘stressed is desserts spelled backwards’”

In addition to her outstanding academic achievements, Werb was a candid mentor to younger scientists, and was awarded UCSF’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Mentoring, in 2015. Weaver recalls Werb’s no-nonsense approach to mentoring: “You didn’t go to her for cuddles, you went to her for the truth. Although she was tough on the outside, there was a softness underneath. Her nickname was Zena Warrior Princess - she was an icon.”

Associate Professor Mikala Egeblad, of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who nominated Professor Werb for the Suffrage Science award, also recollects many fond memories of her “intellectually fearless colleague, beloved mentor and generous friend”.

“Zena had such a quirky personality and sense of humour that endeared her to her mentees, whether they were lab members, junior faculty or senior colleagues,” Egeblad told Suffrage Science. “She treated many as family, and we were nurtured with scientific wisdom, annual dim sum, invites to her home, and witty remarks. One of her favourite lines to worried mentees was ‘stressed is desserts spelled backwards’.”

“She was training us to become independent, learn new areas, and push us to do something where you didn’t always know where the end would be. One of the things I particularly liked was the habit she had to go from bench to bench once or twice a day and chat to each lab member and see the raw data.”

“Finding ways to overcome barriers [to women in science] was something that was very important to her”

Werb’s own experiences, from her early encounters of prejudice, to her fight to gain the same recognition as her male colleagues, fed her motivation to help make the field more accommodating for women. “Zena believed it could change,” Weaver said.

For Egeblad, this was one of the reasons why Werb was the perfect fit for the Suffrage Science award. “Zena recognised that there were a lot of additional barriers, and she was particularly supportive of women in science,” Egeblad said. “Finding ways to overcome those barriers was something that was very important to her. So, I think this award was important to her in that respect.”

“The other thing I thought when choosing to nominate Zena, that was a bit fun, was that this award comes with a piece of jewellery, and Zena loved jewellery, especially very dramatic necklaces. When I got the award in 2018, she really came to mind straight away because of this combination.”

Werb’s extraordinary research was complemented by her tenacity and humility. She will be remembered for her original, creative and fearless thinking, as well as for her lasting impact on the scientists she mentored.

Professor Werb was nominated by the 2018 Life Sciences awardee Professor Mikala Egeblad. You can see the lineage of this and other awards within the Life Sciences branch here, and meet the other 2020 Life Sciences awardees here.

The Suffrage Science award schemes celebrates women in science for their scientific achievements and for their ability to inspire others. Each recipient nominates the next recipient of their award, creating a network of inspiring and supportive women.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Life Sciences awards event will now take place virtually alongside the 2020 Maths and Computing awards event next month.


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