Blazing New Trails | Meet a Scientist

She has swum in the Amazon, gone ice fishing in the Arctic, traveled the Galapagos, and hang-glided in New Zealand. But the biggest trail Dr. Beth Karlan has blazed throughout her life has been in the field of gynecologic oncology.

Dr. Karlan is Professor and Vice Chair of Women’s Health Research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA. She is also Director of Cancer Population Genetics at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA. And the Chair of OCRA’s Scientific Advisory Committee, and a multi-year recipient of OCRA grants.

Her career began nearly 40 years ago, at a time when women in medical school were a rarity. In fact, when she was a little girl and told her pediatrician she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up, he replied, “You can’t do that. You’ll take the spot away from a man. You’ll marry a doctor.” (She did, and they’ve been married 40 years.)

“There used to be a TV show that starred Richard Chamberlain as a very young handsome Dr. Kildare,” Beth recalled. “I used to watch the show, and in my dreams, I always saw myself as a colleague. I wasn’t one of the nurses running after him. I was a doctor along with him.”

Where it all started

Beth Y. Karlan M.D.

Beth’s interest in medicine, and specifically cancer research, dates back to her teenage years when her grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was intrigued by the biology of the disease and at age 16 worked in a cancer research lab at her local hospital. She remembers thinking about what makes a cancer cell different from a normal cell; what gives it a property to keep growing non-stop.

But it was one specific interaction she had while in medical school that firmly set Beth on the path to becoming a pioneer in ovarian cancer research. She was 29 years old, doing her Sub I rotations, and checking in on a patient, a 35-year-old woman, who was dying of ovarian cancer. Beth was with the other attendings, the chief resident, and fellow – all standing at the foot of the bed – and the woman sat up, pointed directly at Beth (the only other woman in a room full of men) and said, “What right do you have to be here in medical school pursuing your dreams when I’m lying in this bed dying?”

“I was taken aback and walked out,” recalled Beth. “But it resonated so meaningfully with me. I really took it to heart. It’s been an ongoing mantra, like an albatross around my neck. I felt I just needed to answer that question.”

Seeking answers to many questions

Beth has dug into this question from multiple angles throughout her career. She started first working predominantly in early detection, looking for ways to find ovarian cancer at stage one. She was a fellow and helped to treat Gilda Radner when she had ovarian cancer. Beth was struck by Gilda’s strong family history of cancer, and when the BRCA genes were later identified, Beth’s work morphed into a program focusing on inherited genetic susceptibility for cancer. More recently, she has been exploring the tumor’s microenvironment as another avenue for treatment.

“While my earliest question as a teen related to why a cancer cell is different than a normal cell,” Beth explained, “I came to understand that the cell does not live in isolation. So, what is different about the environment that it’s living in and how does that influence its behavior?”

She described it using a garden metaphor, where the cancer cell is a seed, and its microenvironment is the soil. If a weed is growing in a beautiful lawn, with mulch and nutrients, you could mow the weed down (similar to chemotherapy) or you could change the soil and make it into sand, so that nothing else could grow. This is what her last OCRA-funded project has been working on.

A purpose-driven life

What defines Beth outside of the lab is her family. “Those relationships help me work harder and not burn out,” she said. “I recognize how precious life is through those relationships, and they place me on that burning platform for why we need to be doing better for the women that we treat.”

She’s also an “adrenaline junkie,” getting up at 5am to go to the gym, working out seven days a week – whether it’s doing an elliptical, Pilates, hiking the hills in Southern California, or walking her dogs along the beach. “I’m addicted to my endorphins,” Beth said.

In this way – and through her travels, and her unending quest to solve the question posed to her as a young medical student – Beth is embodying the advice she would give to others.

“Live every day to its fullest. Tell those you love that you love them while you still can,” Beth said. “Have a purpose-driven life, but really embrace it as a piece of your character, so you can put your head on the pillow at night and know you’ve left the world a slightly better place.” 

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