Anne-Lise Børresen-Dale is a leading authority in the field of breast cancer research, mother of two adult daughters, and proud grandma. Soon she will come to Germany for an extended research visit. An interview about family, career, research in Germany and the long road to personalized medicine
Anne-Lise Børresen-Dale is a role model for many young junior scientists: She is one of the leading molecular biologists in breast cancer research, the author of over 400 publications, mother of two daughters and now grandma. For 14 years, she has been leading the Department of Genetics at the Institute for Cancer Research of the Oslo University Hospital, since 2011 she is the director of the KG Jebsen Centre for Breast Cancer Research. Throughout her career, the Norwegian was awarded numerous prizes. Now she receivces as one of two women the Helmholtz International Fellow Award - an award that gives her the opportunity to spend several months at a Helmholtz Centre.
Mrs Børresen-Dale, congratulation to the Helmholtz International Fellow Award. The prize includes a longer research stay at one of the Helmholtz Centres. What are your plans for your upcoming stay in Germany and which centre will you visit for a longer period of time?
Thank you very much, I am so happy about the Helmholtz International Fellow Award. The prize gives me a great opportunity to spend a longer period of time at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg. In mid July I will get together with some DKFZ colleagues and we will discuss how I could use the time there efficiently. During my stay in Germany I will also visit other centres, especially the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch.
What is your primary objective for your visit?
The most important thing – and the aim for my stay in Germany – is, to foster new collaborations, meet young research fellows and talk to them about their research and exchange ideas between German and Norwegian research areas. Another wish is to extend existing collaborations with the DKFZ, but also with other Helmholtz Centres.
With your outstanding breast cancer research you have paved the way for important approaches in the area of personalized medicine. When will we be ready to cure diseases through individually tailored therapies?
We have to take one step at a time – it takes a lot of research and time, but I am really optimistic. We are on a very good way and making progress. The challenge is: one therapy fits for patient A, but not for patient B with the same disease. So we have to find out what the obstacles are and what type of therapy would be suitable for patient B.
What are the challenges in the field of personalized medicine?
It is not only about the individually molecular constitution of the patient. It is also about how to combine the amazing amount of data – clinical, pathological, molecular and epidemiological – generated from the interdisciplinary approaches in the field of personalized medicine. We have to share the data from each patient more frequently with all the involved disciplines and across centres worldwide, and analyze the data in a systems biology approach in order to identify similarities and differences. It is the way of learning from each patient and so hopefully one day we could be able to find the appropriate and individual treatment for everyone. As I said: one step at a time.
You have been working in different countries, amongst others in the USA and Germany. Do you think Germany is a good place for scientists from all over the world, especially for the further development of their career?
Absolutely. Germany has top research facilities and cancer centres. I am really impressed with all the consortia, like the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK). The whole consortia of German Research Centres are unique – I have never seen this so efficient before. It is impressive to see how the centres are working together and share their experiences to make progress in the treatment of the most important diseases. I think this is better than in the US. In Europe and especially in Germany, there is much more commitment within and between the centres – despite of the legitimate competition. In Europe there exists a strong mentality of collaboration which is the basis for tackling a problem together – in the US it is more challenging to have interdisciplinary studies across institutions and states, follow-up of patients are more difficult with a different health care system, and the whole scientific systems do not encourage collaborations.
It is your sincere wish to meet young scientists. What do you recommend them – doing research abroad and coming back or staying in their home country?
It is always good for a scientist to spend some time abroad. But it is a dilemma, because it is often difficult to return. I think the most important reason for that are different structures in different countries. As I said, the German consortia are unique, you do not find them in another country. Interdisciplinary work within a research network, within collaborations, is powerful and absolutely necessary to get ahead in research. In countries outside Europe scientists do not have the conditions working together so closely within a network. That makes it harder for scientists to return and find their position in the local research landscape.
Besides your excellent research activities, you are an author of more than 400 scientific papers and you are highly involved in several scientific committees. How much time do you really have for your own research?
My own research is my group – I am not standing in the lab anymore. I am in daily contact with my students, research fellows and colleagues and discuss my ideas with them. They take them up, do experiments and then we discuss different ways how to interpret the results and how to continue the research work. When I visit an international conference, I take notes, email them to the group and they look what could be the output on this: Can we try this approach? Do we see this particular gene or molecular signature in our dataset, and does that have an effect on patient outcome? Tthis is my daily work: Bringing ideas into my group and working on results.
For many young women it seems to be a thin line between the challenging days as researcher and the private life with family business. How did you manage your daily life when your two daughters were young?
My kids grew up in the 1970s and 1980s – this was yet another time. I had great support from family and friends. When I was on business trips, I talked to my children over the phone or took them with me. Here in Norway, young students use the one year maternity leave for reading and participating in meetings. They stay in interaction – not going into isolation – with their job, bring along their babies and keep on working a bit. In contrast to then, today there is so much more engagement and duties when you have kids: You have to bring them to the soccer training, to horse riding, pick them up from friends and so on. I think it is more difficult than 30 years ago, but it is a question of life-style, organization and integration.
What do you recommend young women who do not know how to combine job and family?
Young women should reflect on how they could organize their lives: Do they have the right environment with family, friends, neighbors and colleagues who could look after the kids? It should not be the question getting a baby or not. It is more about logistics and organization, and you indeed have to fall in love with your work in addition to your family.
Helmholtz International Fellow Award for Excellent Researchers and Science Managers
The prize targets outstanding senior scientists and research managers based outside Germany who have excelled in fields relevant to the Helmholtz Association, including science management at large international research institutions.
The award will give Helmholtz International Fellows the opportunity to pursue research flexibly at one or more Helmholtz Centres where cooperation already exists or would be useful and profitable in the future. Up to 10 Helmholtz International Fellow Awards can be awarded each year. Nominations can be submitted anytime by all member institutions of the Helmholtz Association.
The Helmholtz International Fellow Award is funded by the Initiative and Networking Fund of the Helmholtz Association - A central tool for achieving strategic goals and the implementation of the principles to which the Helmholtz Association is committed in the course of Initiative for the Innovation and Research.