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Love in the Lab: Valentine’s Day with Scientific Couples

February 13, 2020

Science is stereotypically regarded as the territory of cold, hard facts, and one that leaves little room for emotion. Scientists are often portrayed as extreme rationalists whose decisions are guided solely by their heads with no input from their hearts.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, however, we wanted to shine a light on the softer side of science and show that science and love can be—and often are—intertwined. Sharing a passion for science can bring people together not only professionally, but also personally and sometimes romantically. The following couples, where both members are esteemed professionals in the biomedical sciences, reveal that there is a place in science for the heart as well as the head.

Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., and James P. Allison, Ph.D.

Padmanee Sharma and James P. Allison
Drs. Padmanee Sharma and James P. Allison. Photo courtesy of Padmanee Sharma

Drs. Padmanee Sharma and James P. Allison (Pam and Jim) both currently work at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX.

At MD Anderson, Pam is a professor in the departments of genitourinary medical oncology and immunology as well as the scientific director of the immunotherapy platform and the co-director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI) center there. Jim is the chair of the department of immunology, the executive director of the immunotherapy platform, and the deputy director for applied research of genitourinary cancers.

Pam is a member of the CRI Scientific Advisory Council and the CRI Clinical Accelerator Advisory Committee. In 2018, she received CRI’s highest scientific honor, the William B. Coley Award, and she is currently an investigator on two immunotherapy trials funded through the CRI Clinical Accelerator. Jim is currently the director of the CRI Scientific Advisory Council. In 2018, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Previously, he received the William B. Coley Award in 2005 and was the inaugural recipient of the AACR-CRI Lloyd J. Old Award in 2013, among other awards and recognitions.

When and where did you two first meet?

We met for the first time in 2004 in New York City at a meeting organized by CRI’s Dr. Lloyd J. Old at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.

When did you first realize that you both shared a passion for science? How has that shared passion brought you two closer together throughout your relationship?

I, Pam, was a new assistant professor at MD Anderson in 2004 and I proposed an idea for a pre-surgical (neoadjuvant) trial with a novel immune checkpoint therapy (anti-CTLA-4), which was still experimental and not yet FDA-approved, in patients with localized bladder cancer who were scheduled for surgery. I discussed with Jim that the pre-surgical trial would allow us to evaluate for a possible clinical signal in patients with bladder cancer and it would provide access to large amounts of tumor tissues for laboratory studies focused on understanding the impact of checkpoint therapy on human immune responses. Jim was supportive of my idea and he helped me to negotiate access to anti-CTLA-4. We shared a passion for the science and the possibility of using immune checkpoint therapy to treat multiple different tumor types, including patients with bladder cancer. I wrote the clinical trial and published the first paper with immune checkpoint therapy in the pre-surgical setting in 2008. It was an exciting study and our relationship grew as we collaborated to integrate the clinical studies with the laboratory analyses.

How often do you bounce ideas off each other outside of work, or draw inspiration from the work each other is doing?

We’re always bouncing ideas off of each other or discussing new projects or data. We work together every day. We’re inspired by the patients and hope to continue our research work to develop new treatment strategies to benefit even more patients.

What have science and medicine taught you about love? What has love taught you about science and medicine?

Science and medicine have taught us about the importance of each experiment and every clinical study and has allowed us to share our passion for T cells. Love has taught us to trust in each other and work together to keep moving the field forward to find better treatment strategies for patients.

What is one of your fondest memories from Valentine’s Day?

Working together to write a research grant and submitting the grant from a bar while drinking martinis.

Arlene Sharpe, M.D., Ph.D., and Gordon J. Freeman, Ph.D.


Arlene Sharpe and Gordon Freeman. Photo by Sam Ogden / Dana-Farber
Drs. Arlene Sharpe and Gordon J. Freeman. Photo by Sam Ogden / Dana-Farber

Drs. Arlene Sharpe and Gordon J. Freeman both currently work in Boston, MA.

Arlene is the George Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology, and chair of the department of immunology at Harvard Medical School. She is a member of the department of pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an Institute member at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, leader of the Cancer Immunology Program at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, and co-director of the Evergrande Center for Immunologic Diseases at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Gordon is a member of the department of medical oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. 

Additionally, Arlene has served as a sponsor for three CRI-funded postdoctoral fellows, and she and Gordon were both members of the CRI-Stand Up To Cancer Immunology “Dream Team.” Together, they’ve shared prestigious recognitions, including the 2014 William B. Coley Award and the 2017 Warren Alpert Foundation Prize, and they are both Fellows of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Academy. Arlene is also an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine.

How, when, and where did you two first meet?

We met as undergraduates at Harvard in German class. Arlene was a freshman and Gordon was a junior. It was an early morning class, and Gordon is not an early morning person, so he made the excuse to come see me for the class homework in the evening.

When did you first realize that you both shared a passion for science/medicine?

We first began to realize that we shared this passion the summer after Arlene’s freshman year. It solidified when we were both doing summer research as undergraduates and had dinners together. During graduate school, we worked in the same department in different labs on a hot topic of the day: virus-host interactions.

How often do you bounce ideas off each other outside of work, or draw inspiration from the work each other is doing?

Our decades-long work together on immune pathways illustrates how we bounce ideas back and forth and use our complementary expertise to make discoveries. After graduate school, Gordon pursued research in immunology, and Arlene pursued her interests in virus-host interactions and learned the gene “knockout” technology to explore the roles of different genes in mice. Then recombinant DNA technology exploded, and Gordon cloned a gene called B7-1 and developed initial ideas about how it worked, and Arlene made "knockout" mice lacking this B7-1 gene. We bounced results back and forth and then together we discovered B7-2 and found that it was the major binding protein for two immune receptors, CTLA-4 and CD28. [Editor’s note: CTLA-4 is the target of what later became the first FDA-approved checkpoint immunotherapy.]

At the time though, the function of CTLA-4 was uncertain, and this led us to make "knockout" mice without CTLA-4 to probe its function. And wow! The dramatic impact in these mice showed that CTLA-4 had a critical function in suppressing immune responses. Soon, the human genome began to be sequenced and we looked for cousins of B7-1 and B7-2, which led us to two other immune checkpoints now known as PD-L1 and PD-L2.  We worked together to show that they both worked to inhibit immune activity via the PD-1 checkpoint. We were expecting a purely immunologic gene but were surprised to find that PD-L1 and PD-L2 were expressed on tumor cells too, leading us to test if these were involved in tumors’ ability to evade the immune system. In the years since, we and others have confirmed these ideas and they have translated spectacularly well to cancer immunotherapy strategies in the clinic.

We discuss science at home only a modest amount. We work hard on science at the lab, but we work hard on family at home. At home, we share our day, listen to trials and tribulations, and support each other. 

What have science and medicine taught you about love? What has love taught you about science and medicine?

For the first question, that it is exciting to share a passion and level of intensity. It’s also very special to have a partner who understands why you want to work late into the night or on the weekends as well as someone who is willing to tag-team back and forth with kids and baseball, papers, and grants. For the second, that you should follow your passions and believe in your wild ideas.

What is one of your fondest memories from Valentine’s Day?

A dinner at the top of a Boston skyscraper at a romantic half-moon table, side-by-side overlooking Boston Harbor.

Ayo Odunsi, M.B.A., C.P.A., and Kunle Odunsi, M.D., Ph.D.


Ayo and Kunle Odunsi. Photo by Brittany McCrone / Roswell Park
Mrs. Ayo Odunsi and Dr. Kunle Odunsi. Photo by Brittany McCrone / Roswell Park

Mrs. Ayo Odunsi and Dr. Kunle Odunsi both currently work at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, NY, where she is the operations and business development administrator of the Center for Immunotherapy and he is the deputy director, chair of the department of gynecologic oncology, and executive director of the Center for Immunotherapy.

Additionally, Ayo is an important educational partner of CRI’s patient programs, including our upcoming Immunotherapy Patient Summit in Buffalo at Roswell Park, whereas Kunle is a member of the CRI Scientific Advisory Council, the CRI Clinical Accelerator Advisory Committee, and is currently an investigator on three clinical trials funded through the CRI Clinical Accelerator. Kunle is also an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine.

How, when, and where did you two first meet?

We were both college students, and we were introduced by a mutual friend in the summer of 1980 in our hometown in Nigeria.

When did you first realize that you both shared a passion for science/medicine?

When we met, Kunle was already in medical school and was very passionate about research even at that early stage. When we moved to England, we both worked for the National Health Service, where Ayo worked in the Finance Department. Her passion for medicine was ignited as she had finance meetings with the medical personnel. Kunle pursued a PhD program and would discuss his project with Ayo, which got her further interested. Ayo’s interest reached its peak when Kunle started working on cancer immunotherapy under the mentorship of CRI’s Dr. Lloyd Old. She found Kunle’s passion for science and medicine infectious! She has attended some scientific meetings with him, sitting and listening when he gave talks.

How has that shared passion brought you two closer together throughout your relationship?

Both of us have had close family members affected by cancer. We believe that our shared passion for trying to find a cure for cancer has brought us closer together.

How often do you bounce ideas off each other outside of work, or draw inspiration from the work each other is doing?

Almost always. We complement and respect each other’s strengths and what we each bring to the table.

What have science and medicine taught you about love? What has love taught you about science and medicine?

For both of them, you have to learn to be patient and have endurance to get the best results.

What is one of your fondest memories from Valentine’s Day?

Writing each other a letter to reaffirm our love.

Diana K. Morales, Ph.D., and Juan R. Cubillos-Ruiz, Ph.D.

Drs. Diana K. Morales and Juan R. Cubillos-Ruiz. Photo by Tito Sandoval, Ph.D. / Weill Cornell
Drs. Diana K. Morales and Juan R. Cubillos-Ruiz. Photo by Tito Sandoval, Ph.D. / Weill Cornell

Drs. Diana K. Morales and Juan R. Cubillos-Ruiz both currently work at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, NY, where she is an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology research in obstetrics and gynecology, and he is the William J. Ledger, M.D., Assistant Professor for Infection and Immunology. Juan is also a former CRI postdoctoral fellow and a current CRI CLIP Investigator who has sponsored one CRI postdoctoral fellow of his own.

How often do you bounce ideas off each other outside of work, or draw inspiration from the work each other is doing?

Pretty often because we have collaborative projects looking at how cancer therapies influence the crosstalk between the host microbiome and the immune system. Diana provides expertise and ideas around the microbiome and microbial physiology, while Juan brings the immunology expertise. We are very excited about this project as it is the first one that links our independent areas of expertise. Moreover, we spend hours sharing ideas and talking about science and our labs, and although we work in different areas, we complement each other by providing different points of view and helping us think out of the box. Coincidentally, both of us ended up working on the same metabolic pathway and finally published articles on this area in our respective fields. We definitely learn from each other every day.

What have science and medicine taught you about love? What has love taught you about science and medicine?

We have learned that science and medicine need a lot of passion, patience, perseverance, commitment, and love, just like a personal relationship. Also, we believe that to be successful in both endeavors, it is important to share similar goals and work toward them together. We also keep in mind that life is not only about work, so we spend time doing other activities that we enjoy together, such as traveling, art, and music.

What is one of your fondest memories from Valentine’s Day?

We are from Colombia and grew up without celebrating Valentine’s Day. However, we enjoy spending time together and chat for hours about multiple topics outside of science. That’s why we like traveling together, and one of our fondest memories was a trip we made to Capadoccia in Turkey right before we started our faculty jobs.

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