Talking Real Science with Gwen Randolph

This episode of Share Science features Gwen Randolph, PhD, a pathology and immunology professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Last year, Gwen presented a webinar with us in our immunophysiology and inflammation series on the trafficking of microbial signals from the intestine. In this interview, Gwen shares some of her scientific passions, as well as personal experiences as a woman in science.

Where did you grow up and how did your youth influence your path and passion towards science?

I grew up on a farm in the Texas Panhandle. It was a plant farm, so we grew corn, soybeans, and wheat. Honestly, I didn’t necessarily have any pressures to even seek a college education, but I loved the farm itself. Actually, when I was in the fourth grade, with the help of my grandfather and my mom, I started a chicken farm mostly just for pleasure.

“That, I would say, spurred my interest in biology, by hanging around and just watching the whole process of chicks being born.”

Ultimately, when I was in high school, I realized that science was my favorite subject. I set out with really no understanding of what a research career could be. I initially started college relatively nearby on a basketball scholarship and studied pre-med. My first year in college, I took a histology class and I became really enamored with the structure of organs, and particularly with white blood cells on a blood smear. I was fascinated by leukocytes. That class was probably a turning point for me in terms of choosing to pursue research rather than actually becoming a physician.

Where did you study and how did you end up in immunology?

I had a basketball scholarship at Wayland Baptist University, but they didn’t really have coursework that would drive me in this area that I became really interested in, like leukocyte trafficking. The biology there was more ecological so I ended up leaving, and I spent one year at a college in Arkansas.

“I had this book that I was reading in the laundromat on leukocyte trafficking. Sitting there while my laundry was tumbling in the dryer, I was starting to read about how leukocytes crawl between endothelial cells to get out of blood and into tissues, and I just thought it was super fascinating.”

I requested to take a self-study course in immunology because there was no such offering at the university at the time. Later on in the third and fourth years of my undergraduate education, I actually made it to the east coast where I had long wanted to be. I went to Temple University in Philadelphia. There, I did not study immunology, but continued my biology training and got an undergraduate degree in biology.

“I remembered my love for leukocyte trafficking and so when I went to do a PhD, I focused on that. It’s really that first love scenario.”

Is there any one person who was or is the greatest influence on your career?

It’s hard to point to a single person. Actually, I gave a lecture at the American Association of Immunologists a few years ago, a distinguished lecture, and I put out a slide of the people I feel like influenced me the most. I came up with a handful of people.

“I think we’re influenced by many people at different times.”

The first person who really influenced me was Ralph Steinman, who won the Nobel Prize in 2011 for his discovery of dendritic cells. He turned out to be a co-mentor for me during my postdoc raising, and was really, really influential to me both scientifically and personally, and just really encouraging.

Later on, I moved to Mount Sinai and started my first lab there. A few years after I arrived, Miriam Merad started her lab right next to mine. That was such a fantastic period, I think, that was a positive trajectory for my career. There were other people who made major contributions. Melody Swartz, who’s now at the University of Chicago, influenced me by starting the process of thinking how molecules move through spaces of tissues, and so we began to collaborate. Right now, we connect our leukocyte work with lymphatic trafficking influenced by Dr. Swartz.

We’ve even started to think about lipoproteins. My lipoprotein influence and go-to person is Mary Sorci-Thomas at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Just before I moved to Washington University, Jean-Frederic Colombel from Mount Sinai got me really interested in thinking about leukocyte and molecular trafficking from the gut in the context of inflammatory bowel disease. We interacted really only briefly, but the level of enthusiasm he had for what we were doing, even though it was outside of his clinical area, really brought us to that topic. It’s really wonderful to have those kinds of interactions.

One of my really close colleagues here at Washington University is Bernd Zinselmeyer, who established intravital imaging in my laboratory. He and I now work closely together as partners in running the lab.

“It’s a group of six people, I would say, who really had, for different reasons and at different times in my career, a major influence and made it a lot of fun.”

Can you share your experience as a woman in science?

You know, it’s a complex question in a way because I wouldn’t even be in science if I had not grown up in a scenario where as a girl who loved the farm, I was not seen as a person who could take on that career. While it looks like a missed opportunity, I’m glad it was missed because I think I ended up in something much richer. Early on in my career, although I was aware that women were sometimes underestimated or dismissed, it didn’t bother me that much. I was just there doing what I wanted to do.

“I will say, though, that when I began to mention all the women who influenced me around the time I started my own laboratory, I saw how valuable it is to interact with other women to stay encouraged and also to deeply enjoy doing science.”

It can happen in other ways. For me, having a close connection to Miriam Merad, for example, and sharing a lot of science while we were also raising kids at the same time was really, really fantastic in a very positive way. As I’ve been around longer, I have also started to feel concerned about the limitations that women face, but I’m not 100% sure how to improve that outcome.

The other day, in fact, I was just listening to Ann Richards’ speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1988. That’s around the time that I was finishing high school, and she was the governor of Texas, so very much from my own upbringing. Around that time, I think women were imagining that we were constantly moving forward in terms of what we might achieve in the coming years.

“Now it’s more than 30 years later, and I sometimes worry that we’re moving a bit backwards.”

It also might be the case that as I became more senior in science, I started to see the complexity of being underestimated or dismissed. In the beginning, it was not so problematic because I felt like, “I’ll just show you.” In a way, being underestimated meant I could actually get a hold of resources that nobody thought I would do anything with. It was possible to take it as a positive, but it does get old after a while, feeling like you’re underestimated after you have really shown that you can keep up with anybody in science. We’re hitting a plateau for leadership roles for real influence.

“I’m trying to stay positive, but I have to often just retract into science because science is really fun and it doesn’t look at gender when it comes down to actual experiments.”

How can academic institutions and their employees change their practices to promote gender equality in science?

I do think that often, very high leadership is perhaps hypercritical, or let’s say hypersensitive about being criticized for their roles in promoting progress in women’s areas. Even a year ago, I wrote an article in the Journal of Experimental Medicine on this topic and felt that talking with leadership would be a useful end to coming up with solutions.

“Now, I have come to believe that … real change happens on two levels. One of them is … the people you’re around every day.”

Looking back on my early years, I realize I wasn’t necessarily looking at what the institution was doing as much as what my very close and neighboring colleagues, other women around me, were doing and how we created a community for each other. That was very, very positive. I still think that’s really important. Institutions should, and I believe can, create infrastructure that supports women, all the way from wellbeing to actual infrastructure around childcare, breastfeeding, and promoting community among women. I would love to see that happen, but I think that it goes so far beyond institutions.

I also play roles in grants groups. I am sad to see the low fraction of women, particularly perhaps after COVID, who are on these panels and whose grants are coming forward. I think that the issues to be addressed are critical changes that need to happen at the institutional level. Exactly how to promote those in the most positive manner without actually moving backwards, which is my fear, is unclear to me.

At the same time, it also goes beyond the institution. Maybe it really does have a lot to do with unconscious bias. I have a lot of colleagues who I feel like have a real intent to support women, but still might be the people who, when they make openly critical comments about others in groups, it might in fact be more often than not women, and it’s very troubling to me. Then how to correct it is still mysterious to me.

“I think it’s widely thought that increasing women’s visibility in leadership roles is one answer, and maybe that is true. It’s something that I personally have struggled with.”

I am attracted to the complexity of this problem and very much would like to see it move forward in a positive way, but at the end of the day, I also believe that what I really want to do is science. Maybe that’s where women’s success will ultimately play out, in the laboratory. Sometimes these other roles that we are talking about actually distract from that success in the laboratory. I worry that leadership roles are often also highly constrained in the context of their institution to actually make change.

“For me, that has led to the thinking that maybe the best use of my time is to do science and to train scientists, which is really fun and ultimately, albeit perhaps slowly, makes change in the community.”

What advice would you give to young scientists as they embark on their journey into academia?

One would be to take all this one day at a time, try to set your anxieties aside. It’s really easy to get anxious about whether or not your career will progress. No one can see that. I do think that if you follow what you want to do and what you love, that makes it possible to set aside the anxiety and tension associated with the career. I think it fosters success. On a continuous basis, I remind myself of what I expected when I entered this career, and what I’ve done.

“In many ways, I think I’ve gone a lot farther than I ever thought [I would].”

In the beginning, I really just wanted to be able to keep doing science and win enough grants to actually keep my salary moving forward and keep some interesting experiments going on. I think that has helped me not feel overwhelmed. Another piece of advice is follow your passion. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s really a great approach to life, and that means that you don’t have to follow a formula. Define what it is that you want to have happen: if you want low intensity or high intensity, or this or that particular topic, let it be your decision.

Click the button below to hear more about Gwen’s career in immunology, as well as her experience as a woman in academia!

Share This Story!