Metabolic Epidemiology Branch
Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics
National Cancer Institute
Learn more about Gretchen Gierach »
Tell me about your background and how you got started as a scientist.
My enthusiasm for the epidemiology of breast cancer and other hormonally-related female cancers stems from a foundation in women's health research that began as an undergraduate and matured throughout my graduate training. As an undergraduate research assistant at the Pennsylvania State University and then project manager for the TREMIN Research Program on Women's Health, I gained experience in qualitative research while working in the Department of Women's Studies and the Population Research Institute. I was also fascinated by the research that had stemmed from decades of TREMIN record-keeping, particularly an epidemiology study that had analyzed menstrual cycle characteristics with respect to breast cancer incidence.
I subsequently sought epidemiologic training at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health with a focus in cancer epidemiology and women's health. This experience during my PhD was my first exposure to studies that involved mammographic breast dens ity as a radiological marker of breast cancer risk. The clinical significance of mammographic density and the importance of research in this area for women's health and cancer prevention were key factors in my goals to pursue this research area further dur ing my post-doctoral training. The Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program was the perfect setting for me to do that. After I joined in 2006, I was offered the opportunity to continue working on mammographic breast density in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics under the mentorship of my preceptors Dr. Louise Brinton and Dr. Mark Sherman, with whom I continue to collaborate.
What were some of your favorite things/ experiences about being a Cancer Prevention Fellow?
The people! On a personal level I feel extremely fortunate that many of my colleagues in the CPFP have become lifelong friends. It's been a fulfilling experience to see everyone that was in the Fellowship during my time progress on their career paths. On a professional level, the expo sure and opportunity to learn from and collaborate with world leading investigators within and beyond the Division has been instrumental in my development as a scientist. Being a fellow offers you a unique experience to work with not only your mentor, but also with investigators from different backgrounds and I have greatly benefited and learned so much from all of these multidisciplinary perspectives during my Fellowship.
What are some exciting developments or emerging areas in the field of breast cancer prevention?
Although mammographic breast density is well-established as a strong risk factor for incident breast cancer, emerging data from our work and that of others suggests that women whose breast density declines 12-18 months after receiving tamoxifen for chemoprevention or as adjuvant therapy are more likely to benefit than those whose density does not decline. Thus, breast density is potentially a modifiable biosensor of breast cancer risk or active drug metabolism, which may have utility in multiple populations. This is an exciting development as it suggests that in addition to the use of mammographic breast density as a radiological marker of breast cancer risk, it may also have utility as a biosensor for women on active treatment. We have many studies, including ongoing field efforts, where we will follow up and expand upon these findings further. In addition to developing these research questions using mammographic density as a measurement, we are also incorporating breast density assessments using newer technologies, such as ultrasound tomography. The use of these newer technologies is a very exciting area in breast cancer prevention. Many of these methods avoid the use of ionizing radiation and so may be more applicable for younger women, the population for which tamoxifen is more routinely used in the clinic.
Looking back on your career thus far, what is one piece of advice you would give your younger self? What is one piece of advice you give early career scientists?
The one piece of advice I would give my former self and younger fellows coming through the Program is to take full advantage of your time within the Fellowship. Being a CPF offers the unique opportunity to gain exposure to numerous training opportunities that most other post-doctoral positions don't provide. For all new incoming fellows, I would advise them to take stock of current skillsets that have been established and refined during their post-graduate experiences and identify new areas that they want t o grow, e.g., particular analytical skills, experience with a new study design or field work, or project management skills. The Fellowship is a great way of developing existing skillsets but also forming new areas of expertise. I would advise fellows to take risks this way and to not be afraid to try something new.
You have mentored many students at different levels, and mentoring is a prominent feature of your career. How has working with Cancer Prevention Fellows enhanced or influenced your work?
Most of the positive experiences and opportunities I have had during my career have been because I have had great mentorship, both from mentors directly involved in my research but also from mentors outside of my research area. Having transitioned through the Fellowship, it's very exciting to get the opportunity to work with Cancer Prevention Fellows coming through the Program. From my time as a Fellow, I realize the importance of mentorship when working with new Fellows. Each Cancer Prevention Fellow with whom I have mentored has greatly influenced my research and contributed to the direction of my research program. It's been motivating for me to work with new Fellows who have diverse skills, some of which are unique compared to my own skillset. Cancer Prevention Fellows are always full of energy and ideas, and it's rewarding to be able to be a part of their growth and development as independent researchers.
Who is your scientific ‘hero'?
I have several but at the moment I continue to be inspired and amazed by Dr. Amy Cuddy, the Harvard Business School psychologist who describes her research on the science of "power posing" in her TED talk—the second most viewed talk in TED's history! In her talk and book, Dr. Cuddy shares her experimental research in which adoption of body postures that convey confidence influences testosterone and cortisol levels, and may help individuals to be "present" and cope well in stressful situations. I was first introduced to Dr. Cuddy's research by our Division's communications manager, Jennifer Loukissas, as I was preparing for a talk of my own. I now share this research with my fellows and recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Cuddy earlier this year. Go and watch her TED talk!
"We convince by our presence, and to convince
others we need to convince ourselves."
— Amy Cuddy, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, 2012
What is your advice for balancing your work and personal lives?
The best advice I can give to Fellows is to develop a routine and make yourself stick to it. This will allow you to set goals to reach each day and week. By setting these goals, you can keep focused so that when you leave at the end of the day, you can feel confident that you have achieved something. It's also so important to make sure you are passionate about the projects on which you are working, and to enjoy the work you are doing. Maintaining a healthy work life balance will always be a challenge, but being happy in your job is just as important as what you do outside of work. When you love your job, you never work a day in your life!! Outside of NCI, I enjoy spending time with my husband and two young boys, who keep me very busy! When I have a free moment, I try to relax with a book, photography or yoga. I really enjoy travelling and I am looking forward to embarking on many new adventures with my family as our sons get older.
What has been your favorite trip thus far?
I have been very fortunate through the Fellowship and within the Intramural Research Program to have had the opportunity to travel across the country to attend conferences and meet with collaborators. However, my favorite trips to date since starting at the NCI have been two trips I took to Ireland. Both of these trips were to attend the weddings of Cancer Prevention Fellows from my cohort. Without the Fellowship, I would never have had this opportunity.
This interview was conducted by CPFP Fellow Maeve Mullooly.
Registration to the CPFP Summer Curriculum is currently CLOSED.
If you would like to register for classes in 2018, please return in November 2017.
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