Life Sciences Awardee 2020: Professor Zena Werb
“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 .”
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 .”
“One of her favourite lines to worried colleagues was ‘stressed is desserts spelled backwards’”
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 becoming a professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in 1983. Werb became known for her dedication to mentoring younger scientists, particularly women in science. Several former lab members say she treated students and post-docs like family, and her commitment ultimately led to Werb being awarded UCSF’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Mentoring, in 2015.
Associate Professor Mikala Egeblad, of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who nominated Professor Werb for the Suffrage Science award, recalls 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. She was also supportive of her lab members having families, with essentially a photo wall of all the babies born to lab members.”
“My students have become the children I never had” – Werb, 2004
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. Werb has said several times that she used these experiences to help her focus on the future and what could be done. Ultimately, this was reflected in Werb’s commitment to mentorship, and the creation of her own “scientific family.”
In an interview with Professor Fiona Watt (a previous Life Sciences Suffrage Science awardee and now chief executive of the Medical Research Council) for the Journal of Cell Science in 2004, Werb said: “If I had not become a researcher, I probably would have had a family. I did not choose career over family. I never thought I was anything but superwoman. But finding a partner who would accept that proved less than successful. I found I could control my access to great science, but not great men. Science can be very individual and a lonely pursuit, but it has impacted on my personal life by playing to my tendency to be a hermit. My career has given me a great scientific family. My students have become the children I never had .”
“Finding ways to overcome barriers [to women in science] was something that was very important to her”
For Egeblad, Werb’s commitment to mentorship and to improving the world of science, particularly for women, made her the perfect fit for this award. “Zena recognised that there were a lot of additional barriers, and she was particularly supportive of women in science. 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 believed that sharing the challenges that she has overcome with her scientific family could give them tools to bring down barriers for the next generation. In 2004, she said: “Most research lasts less than 5 years, [but] it is the next generation that you train that lasts. I want to train terrific scientists for the future. I have been fortunate in making the right decisions that have fostered my career, in spite of challenges. I feel a responsibility to give back to the community .”
Werb’s extraordinary career and research were complemented by her humility. She will be remembered for her original, creative and fearless thinking, and her rich legacy of supporting the careers of others will live on in 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.