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Dr. Laurie Glimcher, a trailblazing female scientist, is coming home to Boston’s Longwood Medical Area — though not to the job some would like her to have.
Glimcher, 64, dean of Cornell University’s medical school, is known for breaking glass ceilings, making big discoveries about the immune system, and helping other women along the way — making her a prime candidate to be the first female dean of Harvard Medical School.
“I was very honored to be asked if I would consider that position,” Glimcher told STAT.
The job would be “extremely prestigious,” she said, but she decided not to pursue it: Instead, she’ll become the next CEO of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, one of Harvard’s affiliated teaching hospitals.
“I felt I would have more autonomy at Dana-Farber, which is an institution that stands on its own,” said Glimcher, whose appointment was announced last week. Harvard Med has 10 basic science departments, but does not directly oversee any of its 15 affiliated clinical sites and hospitals.
Dr. Lee Nadler, dean of clinical and translational research at Harvard Med, said when the news broke about Glimcher’s new job, a bunch of prominent faculty there protested, “But we wanted her for dean!”
“She would’ve been a wonderful dean, because she’s fearless,” Nadler said.
“The unanimity on that would’ve been overwhelming,” declared immunologist Barry Bloom, who worked with Glimcher when he was dean of Harvard’s public health school.
The office of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust declined to comment on the search to replace the medical school’s outgoing dean, Dr. Jeffrey Flier.
Glimcher, a leading immunologist, was the first female medical school dean in New York state, and will become the first woman to lead Dana-Farber when she replaces the retiring Dr. Edward J. Benz Jr. in January.
Glimcher grew up in Brookline, graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1976, and spent most of her career in the Longwood Medical Area and at Massachusetts General Hospital before leaving for Cornell in 2012.
She gained an early interest in science from her dad, the late Dr. Melvin J. Glimcher, a pioneering bone researcher, who let her tag along to his lab at Mass. General as a kid. Glimcher recalled horrifying her sisters by dissecting frogs on the pavement outside a rented summer home in Maine. When she grew up, she became a full professor at Harvard Med like her father, and later became his scientific collaborator.
Trained as a rheumatologist, Glimcher continued to treat patients until five years ago, while also running her own lab. Her immunological experiments have explored a wide range of diseases, including asthma, HIV, inflammatory bowel disease, and osteoporosis. Her latest research is advancing the fast-growing field of cancer immunotherapy, in which scientists try to awaken the body’s own immune system to smother cancer cells.
“She has just for years and years made seminal discovery after seminal discovery,” said Dr. Paul Anderson, chief academic officer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Anderson was associate chief of the division of rheumatology at the Brigham while Glimcher was a senior faculty member there.
Colleagues describe Glimcher as hard-charging yet generous.
“I don’t think anyone is Laurie’s supervisor,” Anderson said. “She’s a pretty strong person. She has her idea of doing things.”
“She’s brilliant, she’s driven, and she demands that level of outstanding performance from everyone,” Nadler said.
Anderson credited her with breaking down subtle barriers to women’s advancement at the Brigham.
“She was not shy about talking about possible unconscious biases among many of the male [faculty members] that were in charge,” he said. “She just raised the consciousness level.”
While at Harvard, Glimcher freed up her own research money to hire lab techs to support her postdoctoral fellows after they had babies, so they could go home at 6 p.m. and keep their experiments going. She also worked with the National Institutes of Health to create a similar grant program for postdocs caring for family members.
Glimcher said she was inspired to create those programs by her own experience: In her early career, she cared for two young kids while juggling a clinical fellowship and setting up her lab. Her first husband, Dr. Hugh Auchincloss, a surgical resident at the time, wasn’t around much to help with child care. Glimcher leaned on her parents to babysit.
Her son, Dr. Hugh Glimcher Auchincloss, now a cardiothoracic surgical fellow at Mass. General, said his mom made sure to be home in the evenings, but after she put the kids to bed, she would go back to work. She worked with “brutal efficiency,” he said. She didn’t stop for lunch.
Glimcher relied on two principles, her son said: “Don’t be a perfectionist about things that don’t matter.” And if you can pay someone else to do something, do it.
Along the way, Glimcher helped launch the careers of many younger women, including Dr. Ellen Gravallese, who is now division chief in rheumatology at UMass Medical School. “She was always available,” said Gravallese, a postdoc in Glimcher’s lab in the late 1980s. “If I had a question at 11 o’clock at night, I would call her.”
After former Harvard president Larry Summers sparked a firestorm by suggesting that women might be innately less able to do science, Glimcher joined a panel aimed at improving gender equality at the university.
Glimcher said she is disappointed that Harvard hasn’t adopted more of the recommendations from that panel, and she is frustrated by the pace of women’s advancement in academic medicine: “There are not enough women in senior leadership positions, period. It hasn’t gotten a heck of a lot better since I was in medical school.”
When she took over at Cornell’s medical school, Glimcher didn’t wait around to set up committees. She established paid maternity leave. She created a day care center, a grant program for postdocs who are primary caregivers, and an award for excellence in mentoring of women. And she set about putting women in leadership roles.
“One thing that’s very nice about being the boss is that you can say, ‘We’re just going to do this,’” she said.
When Glimcher arrived at Cornell, none of the 19 clinical department chairs were women. Now there are two.
Dr. Rainu Kaushal, whom she promoted to chair the Healthcare Policy and Research Department, called Glimcher a great mentor who is “very gifted at helping faculty think about work-life integration.” She said the day care has been a “game-changer” for recruitment and retention of faculty, including men.
Among the talented scientists Glimcher recruited to Cornell was Lewis Cantley, a top cancer researcher she poached from Harvard Med to establish a cancer center. Cantley described her as an impressive fund-raiser: Together they raised over $100 million to launch the center, he said.
Glimcher, who has authored over 350 scholarly articles and papers, said she plans to keep running a lab when she moves to Dana-Farber. She has racked up numerous awards, including being named the laureate for North America in the 2014 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science awards, which prompted her face to be plastered on posters all over the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
Glimcher’s husband, biochemist Greg Petsko, said amid her busy career, Glimcher finds time to visit with her sisters, three kids, and grandson, enjoy the opera, and hit the StairMaster. She ran her first marathon at age 50.
As dean, Glimcher has taken heat for close ties with industry: She sits on the corporate boards of the pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb and lab equipment manufacturer Waters Corporation, and her lab has received funding from Merck. Some critics have raised ethical concerns about exposing academic research to corporate bias.
Glimcher said she plans to stay on those boards when she takes over at Dana-Farber.
“That’s a benefit for the institution,” she said. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount about drug discovery, research, and development from my time on the Bristol-Myers board. I’ve also learned a lot about financial management.”
She said her ties to industry have been transparent and monitored by a faculty committee.
In the interest of taking the fastest route from scientific discovery to treatment, “the future is to have these partnerships between the private sector and academic medical centers,” she said.
Dana-Farber has no problem with Glimcher remaining on those boards, said spokeswoman Ellen Berlin.
“Working closely with pharmaceutical companies to create new therapies for patients as quickly as possible is in everyone’s interest,” Berlin said in a statement. “We have a role to play in the development of promising compounds, and need a lot of collaboration, with careful guidelines, to beat this deadly disease.”