Researcher Spotlight: Leslie Bernstein, award-winning mentor

September 23, 2015 | by Laurel DiGangi

Researcher Spotlight: Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D. Leslie Bernstein's groundbreaking research study identified the link between physical activity and the reduced risk of breast cancer.

Leslie Bernstein's work speaks for itself.

As an internationally renowned biostatistician and epidemiologist, the director of City of Hope’s Division of Cancer Etiology and interim chair of the Department of Population Sciences has earned significant accolades for her groundbreaking 12-year research study, begun in 1982, which identified the link between physical activity and the reduced risk of breast cancer. Two recent awards honoring her mentorship and distinguished career in breast cancer prevention almost complete the picture. Almost.

To fully understand this remarkable woman, one must know a bit of her personal history. For starters, Bernstein, Ph.D., held national records in competitive swimming and tried out for the Olympics before entering UCLA at the age of 16, eventually graduating with a bachelor's degree in mathematics. She postponed her career goals until her three children were in their teens, eventually earning a master's degree in gerontology and a Ph.D. in biometry – past her 40th birthday. Her (now deceased) husband Saul, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, supported her career throughout their marriage, as she supported his. She attended the births of all her 11 grandchildren, and provided postnatal daycare for each young mother by setting up an office in their homes, her work delivered each day by FedEx.

The Lifetime Achievement Mentoring Award

Apparently, Bernstein’s late career start wasn’t much of a setback. And today, at age 75, she is still an active force at City of Hope, where she has long been a mentor to students, postdoctoral candidates and junior faculty, who have subsequently gone on to productive independent careers in cancer research. In recognition of her commitment, on July 16, 2015, City of Hope awarded Bernstein the Lifetime Achievement Mentoring Award.

“When it came to deciding who should receive the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Mentorship Award, Dr. Bernstein was the hands down winner,” said David Horne, Ph.D., vice provost and associate director of Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope, where Bernstein is founding director of the Division of Cancer Etiology. “Dr. Bernstein has built this division into a world-class ensemble of cutting-edge investigators,” said Horne.

The highlight of the award ceremony was a presentation by Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., winner of a 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. “Elizabeth and I served on many committees together,” said Bernstein, “and she gave a lecture on her prize-winning work in my honor. I don’t think I ever saw the auditorium so filled.”

The Ron Ross Award

Four days later, on July 20, 2015, Bernstein drove to the sixth Pacific Rim Breast and Prostate Cancer Meeting in Stevenson, Washington, to receive the Ron Ross Award for her distinguished career in breast cancer prevention, as well as her long history of mentoring.

The award was created to honor the remarkable achievements of Ron Ross, Ph.D., in the causes and prevention of hormone-related cancers. Sadly, Ross died of brain cancer in 2006 at the age of 57.

Bernstein worked with Ross on the California Teachers Study, which studied more that 133,000 women who are public school professionals in California. This study, begun in 1995, followed these teachers for 20 years and has provided many important findings related to breast cancer prevention, as well as other types of cancer and disease.

“This award was particularly meaningful since Ron and I worked together for 30 years at USC,” said Bernstein. “We were close colleagues. He was like a brother to me.”

In fact, they were so close that during the time Ross was dying, Bernstein went to his home every day and tutored his daughter in calculus.

Advice to young researchers

As a mentor, Bernstein particularly enjoys working with young researchers. “They’re smart,” she said. “Smarter than I am, and they come up with incredible ideas and I want to help them bring those ideas into fruition.”

One piece of advice she provides to young researchers is to be patient. “They may not have something earth-shattering instantly,” she said, “but they should keep working to see the fun in what we do, and also the importance in how we change people’s lives.”

Her commitment to mentoring also extends beyond City of Hope, to scientists throughout the world.

“We have such easy ways of communicating nowadays. I can mentor back and forth through emails,” she said. “The only challenge is finding enough time to help everyone who needs it.”

Bernstein fantasizes about learning how to prevent all types and subtypes of cancer, and hopes that, through her mentoring, future researchers like herself will make those dreams a reality.

“My goal,” she said with a touch of irony, “is to put City of Hope out of business.”

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