Dr. Kornelia Polyak, MD, Ph.D, is a Professor of Medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School. Her lab is internationally recognized as a leader on the molecular analysis of human breast cancer. Dr. Polyak received her MD degree from the Albert Szent-Gyӧrgyi Medical School in Szeged, Hungary in 1991 and her Ph.D degree from Cornell University Graduate School of Medical Sciences/Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, in 1995. Dr. Polyak completed her postdoctorate work in Baltimore at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center in the laboratory of Drs. Bert Vogelstein and Ken Kinzler. She became a faculty member at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in 1998 and was promoted to Professor in 2011. Dr. Polyak has received numerous awards including the Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research in 2011, the AACR Outstanding Investigator Award for Breast Cancer Research in 2012, the NCI Outstanding Investigator Award in 2015, and the Rosalind Franklin Award in 2016.
Dr. Rosa-Maria Ferraiuolo, JoLS Editorial Coordinator, spoke to Dr. Polyak recently and these are the excerpts:
RM: Your recent Nature Communications paper “Perturbed myoepithelial cell differentiation in BRCA mutation carriers and in ductal carcinoma in situ” really promoted the need for the identification of markers for myoepithelial cells in the progression of invasive cancers. Since pathology relies heavily on ER, PR, Her2, and sometimes Ki67 markers to make specific treatment regimens, do you think that more markers should be added during pathology review to aid in better treatment strategies?
KP: Pathologists already use myoepithelial markers such as p63 and SMA in questionable cases, but DCIS and IDC can usually be distinguished based on H&E stained slides.
RM: You and your colleagues have also been a part of translational research focusing on triple negative breast cancer clinical trials. Would you say that the transition from basic research to translational was easy with very little roadblocks, or, were there interruptions in moving the research to clinical since more ethics are involved? Do you think more basic science researchers should attempt a translational path or at the very least collaborative efforts with clinicians?
KP: We do both basic and more translational research work and in my view both are important for making progress. I was fortunate to train as a postdoc in a lab with expertise in translational research and I’m also fortunate to work in a cancer center that has the infrastructure and culture to promote translational research. Thus, while there are of course certain issues specific to translational research, in a supportive environment it is not difficult to conduct such studies. Whether to focus more on basic or translational work depends on the goals of the individual lab and also the environment.
RM: Regarding your methodology of formulating hypotheses from analyzed breast cancer patient samples, utilizing experimental models to test the hypotheses and then translating back to the clinic; was this something you have done from the very beginning of your research career (even as a graduate student) or was it a platform you always wanted to use and then, once given the opportunity, utilized this way of thinking? What are the advantages that you see when performing research in this fashion?
KP: As a graduate student I worked on a very basic research lab, but due to my medical training, I always wanted to do research that has clinical implications. As a postdoc I trained with Bert Vogelstein, who has been a great role model and mentor. Again, in my view every investigator has to decide what way they want to do science depending on their interests, strengths, and circumstances. I personally like to study cancer as a human disease and more interested in understanding what happened in a patient than studying something that can happen in a model system with unclear physiologic relevance.
RM: What was your main motivation when you began your research as a scientist (i.e grad school) and has that changed now that you are a Professor at Harvard Medical School? If so, what is your motivation for your research now?
KP: I started biomedical research as a medical student working on a thesis project. I was frustrated by the lack of clear understanding of diseases, especially cancer, and considered it a failure when we were not able to help patients. This is why I wanted to do cancer research and these my main motivations even now after many years.
RM: What is one of your favorite things about your research/being a scientist?
KP: Intellectual freedom: the ability to come up with ideas and test them in the lab.
RM: You have done amazing research and earned so many prestigious awards. What advice do you have for young trainees that would like to follow your career track?
KP: Focus on important problems and don’t be discouraged by failures. Hard work and perseverance are key. Find supportive mentors and an environment that help you accomplish your goals.
RM: What is the next step/where do you see yourself in the next five to ten years?
KP: I would like to see some of our projects leading to changes in the clinical management of breast cancer patients and those with high risk of the disease.
RM: After you had been in grad school or after you had become a postdoc, did you ever have instances when you suddenly had qualms about your chosen research area or your career path? If so, could you recall what triggered that self-doubt and how you handled that to accomplish what you have today?
KP: Scientific research, just like life in general, has ups and downs. Sometimes it’s not easy to deal with rejections, especially if they are not completely justified, and rejected papers and grants unfortunately are rather common in research. I did and I do occasionally question our research direction and my career path, but when I look at the big picture, overall I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing and still consider myself lucky that I have a profession and a job that allows me to do what I enjoy doing.
RM: How do you promote your research to the general public? Is outreach to allow for public understanding of what happens in your lab important to you?
KP: We work with patient advocates and I also routinely participate in fund raising events and explain our work to the general public. Several of the Foundations that support our work are also disseminating our research on social media and other publications.
RM: What would you say is the most important part of being a researcher? Also, how does a work-life balance affect the quality of being a productive researcher?
KP: Scientific research requires a passion – it’s not a job that can be done otherwise. Productivity requires focus, setting priorities, and getting things done. Work is of course important, but life is even more precious. Thus, everyone has to decide what they can and willing to give up for their work and also understand that priorities and certain time commitments change over time.
RM: Who is your favorite non-family human being (scientist or non-scientist)?
KP: I admire Greta Thunberg, she gives me hope for the future of humanity. We need more passionate young people like her to save our world for future generations.
RM: How do you unwind on a daily basis?
KP: I spend time with my daughter, family, and friends and I go to the gym daily.
RM: What is your favorite fiction or non-fiction book?
KP: The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner. It’s an entertaining yet scientifically accurate description of evolution.
RM: What is your favorite food?
KP: Passion fruit (and I love fruits in general)
RM: Would you like to provide a single sentence that the graduate students and postdocs can print out and post at their bench or desk (i.e. words to live by)?
KP: Aim high, focus, and be eternally optimistic.