Sherlock Holmes of molecules

“My work is kind of like that of Sherlock Holmes; instead of being a detective of people, I am a detective of molecules.” – Dr. Ann Marie Pendergast

Dr. Ann Marie Pendergast (source:

Dr. Pendergast grew up in just about every other country in Central and South America. In her words, “Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, you name it.” Her dad, who served as a United States diplomat mostly in Latin American countries, met her mom in El Salvador while she was working in the embassy. Hence, Dr. Pendergast’s education up to high school ranged from school to school, mostly Catholic schools, she mentioned, because those were probably the best schools in the various countries. In high school, she learned from teachers who taught at the university and who had very high expectations. Her excellent high school science teachers are the reason for her interest in science and research.

The University of Michigan is where Dr. Pendergast received her bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. However, at the very end of her undergrad years, she took a very interesting class on molecular biology, which influenced her to pursue a minor in molecular biology. For her PhD at the University of California in Riverside, she studied biochemistry, and for her postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA, the molecular biology of cancer. After her postdoctoral fellowship, she arrived here at Duke, where her lab primarily focuses on the role of tyrosine kinases of the Abl family and its effect on pathological conditions such as cancer.

Dr. Pendergast loves everything in cancer biology, especially the history of the field. People such as her mentor’s mentor, David Baltimore, who received the Nobel Prize at the age of 33, started the whole area of oncology by looking at viruses. Studying the way that viruses exploited the genes that eventually became either oncogenes or tumor suppressors excited her.

Concerning the manner in which research is conducted nowadays, Dr. Pendergast noted that the reason that science grew to such high levels in the United States is because there was a big investment in science research. Thus, the premier universities around the world, for research in particular, were in the United States. Over the years, this formula has changed in that the universities are dependent on resources from the government, which does not have a long-term strategy; everything is every 4 years, and budgets are not allocated correctly. There will be damage to the ability of the universities to keep funding research and to keep recruiting new faculty. Dr. Pendergast stressed that this type of uncertainty is unfavorable because if the United States is to remain the leader of the world, there has to be more sustained support rather that this short-term, unstable, and unpredictable support. If this instability continues, other countries, mainly China, will fill the vacuum quickly, which is fine, but the US will lose.

In one of my last questions to Dr. Pendergast, I asked for her advice for aspiring young researchers today. She encourages students to combine the MD and the PhD because the MD-PhD creates more options. She said it is like having two arms instead of just one. For example, the instability in the research part can be balanced with patient care. If, for example, the NIH crumbles or funding disappears, the MD part will still be there. It is an advantage to have both. For some people, it is beneficial even for the questions that people can ask; if you can see what is happening in the real patient world, you can combine it with the molecular world and have a better way to look at potential solutions. You can go from a particular problem and ask the more overarching questions. When Dr. Pendergast was getting her degree, the MD-PhD was not as pervasive as it is now. She sees with her own students that having that option really gives an edge, especially in these uncertain times.

As a student on the pre-med track, I asked Dr. Pendergast if she had ever considered pursuing other careers such as becoming a medical doctor. She was not fond of the idea of doing the same technique over and over again, and therefore, she did not really consider becoming a medical doctor. Rather, she was more interested in the concept of really thinking about the processes and making major breakthroughs.

Some of the most exciting discoveries in her lab have been, for example, the discovery that her lab’s molecules play a role in metastasis. Before that, her lab also identified how chromosomal translocation events induce leukemia and identified the main pathways by which that happens.

I then asked about goals. Her goal is to have fun! She pointed out that the nice thing about science and doing your own research is that you are your own boss. It is not like people who work in companies or under big hospital structures. You do not have to see 100 patients or write reports. You just have to have your own ideas and find out new pathways, new discoveries, and identify new ways of treating diseases. There is a lot more flexibility, and you take your own destiny into your own hands rather than other people telling you what to do. You try to find out how pathways connect to each other and how cancer cells find ways to evade being treated. All of that is really exciting! In science, there is always something new. It is not only doing one thing, it is doing multiple, hundreds of things.

Dr. Pendergast’s enthusiastic personality produced an animated conversation as all of her words and motions were filled with life as always. Boy, am I grateful to have a PI that so easily shares her joy and excitement for research. Both her wisdom and outlook on life are really inspiring for me as I think deeply about my future and how the circumstances we live in will affect me and those around me in the years to come.

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