Meet Dr. Jennifer Michaelson – Researcher, Scientist, Executive, and Dedicated Mentor for Women in Science!

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

My passion for science blossomed at an early age. I remember in 7th grade science class learning about bacteria and viruses and being fascinated. My father was a cardiologist, so medicine runs in my family, as does the mind-set of the importance of the work done in the scientific and medical communities. As I advanced through college, I naturally gravitated towards more science-related fields, though I admittedly briefly entertained majoring in French literature. There was something about the absolute truths that can be found in science that really attracted me to the field, and the direct application to human disease that made biology particularly appealing to me.

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?

It’s funny because when I was younger and people asked me, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I would always answer a stewardess, a librarian, or a waitress. It wasn’t until recently that it dawned on me that the reason I was saying this was because that’s where I had seen women in the workplace when I was a kid.

I was fortunate to be ensconced in intellectually rigorous environments during my formative years, as I was the only daughter in a household with 3 high-achieving brothers, educated in a highly competitive co-ed dual curriculum high school, and an undergraduate in Molecular Biology at Princeton University. I was also fortunate to have had several female role models throughout my career. My PhD advisor was a woman who was a senior member of a male-dominated department, while also being a working mom. She would pause during the day to take phone calls from her daughter’s school, and this stuck with me – the ability of my advisor to be a mom and a successful head of a lab.

When I arrived at Harvard Medical School for my post-doctoral fellowship, I realized there was only one other female post-doc in the large lab I was joining, and I soon learned there were other women who had specifically chosen not to join this prestigious lab due to potential challenges in working in a male-dominated, high-profile lab. I had 3 small children, and I had no choice but to fit all my lab work into an 8-hour work day, whereas my colleagues without children were practically living in the lab. This was one of the most challenging points in my career, but my formative years had prepared me to be focused and driven to successfully complete my post-doc. Applying lessons I learned during my post-doc and PhD experiences allowed me to feel confident and empowered when I chose to enter the biotech industry.

Many of the most impactful managers in my biotech career who helped develop my strategic and critical thinking have been women. Watching and learning how female role models handled difficult decisions or challenging situations provided me with the paradigms to make bold decisions, lead by example, and feel confident in my scientific leadership. When I think back to always answering the “what do you want to be” question with the female-dominated roles that I saw when I was a little girl, I appreciate that seeing a woman raise a family while running a lab and having impactful female role models during the early years of my biotech career showed me that I can do it too. I hope other women are having the same experience in their careers now, and ideally seeing these role models at a much earlier stage in their lives.

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

My background and training are in immunology and cancer biology, and so as the field of immune-oncology (IO) was emerging into “prime time”, it was a natural pivot for my interests and career. I have seen the field evolve dramatically. While in the early days the IO sessions at scientific conferences would be relegated to small rooms, now there are numerous conferences exclusively dedicated to specific areas within IO. The IO field is incredibly dynamic and exciting and holds tremendous promise for the treatment of oncology patients in desperate need for new therapies. Yet at the same time, it is a complicated field with complex biology and drug development challenges, and many patients do not respond to IO therapies. What fascinates me most about this space is that we can actually make the patient’s immune system recognize and respond to the tumor – so the patient’s body is ultimately fighting the cancer. The immune system has a memory, so if you can teach the immune system to recognize a tumor, it will have the long-lasting ability to eradicate tumors.

Our team is currently researching treatments across multiple modalities and mechanisms of action. Something I really enjoy about my work at Cullinan is that we have a diverse pipeline that spans a wide range of cancer indications. We also have the ability to make quick decisions to either end research on an asset, ultimately “killing” that program, or to invest in other programs, or add a new asset into the pipeline. As a researcher, this is exciting because I’m able to really dig into stimulating new areas of science while expanding on the other exciting programs we’re already working on.

What are the most rewarding parts related to this work?

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is the ability to pay it forward. I’m a big advocate of learning and leading by example. While I faced challenges trying to balance my career in the lab and my role raising a young family, I am particularly sensitive to providing flexibility for those on my team that have other obligations. I know how important and stressful it can be, and so I strive to provide this flexibility. Ironically it was the COVID pandemic, with the ability to work remotely and have more flexible work schedules, that accelerated this trend.

Another aspect I find particularly rewarding is to be working on programs for patients with cancer that have a high unmet need. Several assets we have in the clinic are for cancer mutations or indications that don’t currently have approved treatment options. The fact that the research our team does may ultimately have a direct impact on the life of these patients makes me even more motivated and passionate to show up for work every day.

How do you keep your team motivated around the work they are doing?

What motivates me the most, and in turn motivates my team, is that we’re always focused on patient need. We find ways to show our team that the work they do positively impacts the lives of patients with cancer as well as the lives of their families. Every day, our team is paying it forward and giving back through their innovative research and drug development efforts. There is a tremendous urgency to develop new medicines for patients with cancer who are in desperate need of treatment. There is nothing more meaningful than hearing directly from patients who share their experience on our clinical trials. It is immensely powerful and inspiring to hear the real-life impact of a project to which you contributed. We recently heard from a clinical trial patient reflecting on his experience in a Cullinan Oncology clinical trial, and the positive impact it has made in his life. Stories such as this really bring home how important the research we are doing is to not only patients, but also their family and loved ones.