If prolific City of Hope epidemiologist Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D., were to print all of the research papers she has published during her career, the job would take countless reams of paper and exhaust a stack of ink cartridges.
But ask her what she is most proud of, and she is likely to point not to papers, but to people: the many dozens of respected investigators she has mentored during her career. Bernstein’s protégés come from places as far and wide as China and Norway and as near as the University of Southern California and the University of Texas.
|Leslie Bernstein (Photo ©2007 Philip Channing)|
So it may come as no surprise that Bernstein’s latest grant award from the National Institutes of Health supports not just her own research, but her investment in the next generation of scientists.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) recently awarded Bernstein a nearly $697,000 five-year K05 senior scientist award, which will give her greater opportunities to share her expertise with up-and-coming investigators.
“I’m always helping young scientists and trainees solve problems related to their careers and especially to flesh out ideas for research grants,” Bernstein said with a laugh. “This just buys me some time to do it.”
Director of the Division of Cancer Etiology in the Department of Population Sciences, Bernstein is known for her extensive studies into the role of female hormones in cancer risk and outcomes, including influential research into factors such physical activity and use of hormone replacement therapy and contraception. Over Bernstein’s three-decade-long career, young epidemiologists have approached her for insight, and more often than not, she has taken an active interest in their work.
It all began, she remembers, when she traveled to the Harvard University School of Public Health to give a talk about the need for public policy in changing lifestyle factors related to health. Several of the postdoctoral fellows there — mostly women — invited her to lunch. They peppered her with scientific questions, but then moved on to a tougher topic: how to further their careers.
Bernstein realized that many young researchers were missing crucial aspects of mentorship that could not only advance their scientific mission, but also balance their lives; often, they had questions they were afraid to ask their own mentors.
The experience spurred her to set up regular lunch-time sessions with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at the University of Southern California, where she was on faculty. She taught them about negotiation, understanding the grants process, how to write a curriculum vitae and how to encourage their advisors to be more tiimely in reviewing their papers; she brought in guest speakers to discuss career paths.
Over time, her mentees grew, moved on and became independent researchers, but they stayed in touch and sent new ones her way. At the same time, Bernstein also mentored other scientists through her activity on research advisory committees. She also has served on committees for organizations such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition, supporting the budding careers of health advocates.
“I like interacting with people,” said Bernstein, dean of faculty development at City of Hope. “And I’m having fun. I never thought I would have the academic career of my dreams, and I did. My goal now is to see others be successful and enjoy their careers as much as I have.”
Although Bernstein mentors young researchers working on a wide variety of projects, the NCI grant will fund investigations related to the California Teachers Study, a wide-ranging study of more than 100,000 female public school educators. The study explores links between lifestyle, diet, medication use and other factors and the development of cancer and other diseases.
“I want this research to continue for many years, and the key to the study’s success are the new investigators joining the field,” Bernstein said. “These young researchers have such wonderful ideas and goals, and I want to help them achieve them.”