Face to Face: Paula Vertino and Her Defining Moments

Jul. 17, 2019

She is the oldest of eight, the daughter of chemists. Her mother died when she was just 10. In high school, she was a multisport athlete, earning 13 varsity letters while taking advanced classes and working at Burger King. She went on to play varsity softball in college. She can easily spot a team player.

“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” she likes to say.

Paula Vertino, Ph.D.

Based partly on a love of Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown books as a child, she decided that detective work in a science lab was a perfect career option and settled on biochemistry.

Meet Paula Vertino, Ph.D., the Wilmot Distinguished Professor in Cancer Genomics, and the cancer institute’s highest-level leadership recruit in several years. Her priority is to help Wilmot in the lengthy and rigorous review process to achieve National Cancer Institute designation as a top cancer center in the country. When Vertino agreed to leave Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute in 2018 and come to Rochester, it was a strategic homerun for Wilmot — because she sits on the NCI-A committee that oversees the review of NCI-designated cancer centers nationwide. She laughs at the idea of being a “secret weapon,” but agrees that her experiences and insights should help Wilmot become a stronger organization.

A western New York native and die-hard Buffalo Bills fan, Vertino packed up a 22-year career in Atlanta, bought a snowblower and joined Wilmot at a critical time in its history. She brings a playbook on problem-solving, team building and how to woo the NCI.

We sat down to talk. Following is an edited version of the transcript.

Congratulations and welcome to Rochester! Tell us about yourself and how you operate.

I’m known for my laid-back attitude. I’m often here late, and I’m known for wandering the halls in the middle of the night. (laughs)

I am known as someone who brings people together and as a resource for knowing who’s doing what and where. At Emory, I was one of those people who knew what everybody was working on. Hopefully I will be able to know all of that soon in Rochester. I was connected because I participated in a lot of different groups — from being strongly involved in the graduate training programs and in my interactions with basic scientists, but then I’ve always had my laboratory in the cancer center and been very close to the clinical enterprise as well. I’ve moved between those two worlds very easily. That’s what I hope to bring to this job.

Part of the reason I chose to come here is that I like being in an academic cancer center that’s embedded in a university. I like being at a place where I can run the gamut. For example, I can talk to my epigenetics colleagues about the nitty-gritty biochemical aspects that drive gene regulation in different organisms on one night and then talk to a translational breast cancer group another night. That happens quite often.

That’s either a gift or a skill, right? Seeing the big picture and being able to function in different worlds and pull those common threads seems to be fairly unique in the research world.

Well, yes, scientists like to dive down, not out. I think it’s just a matter of listening. And you have to be open to asking questions and to not be afraid of what you don’t know. ... You have to sort of move out if you want to learn something new. I think I’m good at that. Because I like to listen to people talk about their own research, it allows me to put things together later on.

Was your family the biggest influence on your life trajectory?

Certainly my family had a very big impact, with family dynamics and things, and being the oldest. When it came to choosing a college, I did not go and visit a bunch of different places. I looked at the old Peterson’s Guide... I decided on my path very early on — a biochemistry major and a Ph.D. — even though I didn’t understand what that entailed. And the two in-state schools that offered biochemistry were UB and Stony Brook University. I didn’t want to stay in Buffalo, so decision made! I took a lot of advanced classes in high school and was able to graduate from college in three years.

My first year at Stony Brook, I took Advanced Organic Chemistry with a six-hour lab, and I loved it. I started doing research with one of my professors in organic chem, and I have a paper published from that undergraduate work. That made a big impact.

You started to see life as a scientist?

Yes, I was one of those weirdos who actually liked organic chemistry. They used to give you these mixtures of chemicals, and you had to figure out how to separate them and identify them. I just loved that. It was like detective work. I loved detective stories when I was growing up — I was a big fan of Encyclopedia Brown and, of course, Nancy Drew. I read every one of those books. Maybe research was imprinted way early, figuring out puzzles.

I had a great experience in my undergraduate years. And because I also played varsity softball at Stony Brook, it meant that every afternoon for the whole spring I was occupied with practices or games. It meant me doing my research in the middle of the night. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be doing an experiment and studying at the same time. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. Not a minute of it.

Did it show you how to balance life and juggle different things at once?

Yes, I think so. It just seemed normal at the time, but it exhausts me to think about it now. I also played four sports a year during high school — field hockey, volleyball, basketball and softball. At some point, I figured out how to balance things. And I worked at Burger King in high school and during the summer and winter breaks when I was home from college.

I think these types of experiences teach you to get along with lots of different people in different environments. It’s like what I was saying before — you have sports practice, and that was one group of people focusing on one goal, and then you move from that to Burger King, where it was another group of people with a different goal. I do think that being involved in team sports ultimately impacts you as an adult and how you behave in a team setting. You figure out early on that you can’t be the center of attention at all times. You have to work with everyone else, and that’s going to mean making some compromises.

Another very defining experience for me was during my post-doc years, when I was at Johns Hopkins University in the cancer center. That’s when I started working side-by-side with medical oncology fellows in the lab. It was really one of the things that underscored the power of translational research for me. I knew the molecular biology side of the equation and my medical oncology fellow colleagues were treating patients. So, they, of course, knew what was important and what the clinical questions were.

Wilmot has expanded its mission significantly in the past few years and now has a goal of becoming an NCI-Designated Cancer Center. Since you’ve been embedded in that review process with the NCI for several years, is it fair to describe you as our “secret weapon”?

I guess so, but I’m not sure it’s very secret! (laughs)...

Our job is to convince the NCI “Why Rochester?” when there are already seven cancer centers in New York state — six in New York City and one in Buffalo. I don’t think it’s insurmountable, but it’s something we’re going to have to do very well. At the end of the day, that’s what the NCI is going to ask us.

What have you learned in your first few months here?

For me, everything is a learning experience because I spent almost 22 years in the same institution and grew up professionally in that place. It’s very different coming into a leadership position that you’ve been given as opposed to growing into it. I have fresh eyes. You don’t necessarily know the history, you have no preconceived notions. You can take everything at face value and draw your own conclusions.

Everybody at Wilmot and the University has been as friendly as was reported. People always talk about the collegiality at URMC and it has been true. I think it’s been easy to figure out where people are coming from...

There’s already strong research going on here. So it’s about how we package the research together and bridge the gap from very basic science to more applied cancer center clinical work. My vision would be to successfully achieve that. For example, we have excellent research happening in the area of radiation toxicities. We have a fantastic group in pancreatic cancer research. We have exciting work in cancer cell metabolism. But how can we move this science into a translational setting that will ultimately inspire more clinical trials? Seeing those activities come together with achieving multi-investigator project awards and clinical trials — that will be our big success.

Not only will activities like that help with the NCI grant application, but more importantly those types of connections are real evidence of how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

We haven’t talked about your own research yet. What is your elevator speech on epigenetics and how is it relevant to cancer?

Every cell in your body has the same DNA. Their functions are different. Liver cells, for example, make bile and break down food, and skin cells protect you from the environment. Epigenetics is how different cells maintain their specific identities. This is by controlling which genes are on or off in a particular timeframe and context.

Paula Vertino holds her cat, Abigail.
Paula Vertino with her cat, Abigail

I like to use the analogy of calico cats — which have been my favorite since I was a little girl. Calicos are almost always female. And the reason their coats are patched, made up of two colors, is because of X chromosome inactivation. Female mammals, including humans, are born with two X chromosomes, one from your mom and one from dad. But early on during development, when the embryo is only comprised of eight cells, one of those X chromosomes is shut down. All the genes are off and it stays that way the rest of your life — and the X chromosome that shuts down in each of the eight cells can be from either mom or dad. It happens at random. Every cell that descends from each of the eight cells then remembers which X chromosome is on and which one is off. And so, in cell No. 1, if the X chromosome you got from your father is shut down, every cell that descends from that cell to make the whole human being remembers to turn off the paternal one.

The reason the calico cat is a mosaic is because the gene that determines the coat color is on the X chromosome. And depending on which X chromosome is off — mom’s or dad’s — that creates the orange or black patches. In humans, it’s the same. Females are also a genetic mosaic in terms of X-chromosome activation. You can just see it better on a calico cat.

At the molecular level, the connection to cancer occurs when the epigenetic patterns are changed: Some genes that should be on are turned off, and others that are off are inappropriately turned on. The program is changed, and cells lose their normal identity. The DNA itself is intact, but it’s packaged inappropriately. This is a reversible change. One of the big efforts, naturally, concerns reprogramming the cancer epigenome back to a more normal state.

It’s exciting to think about reprogramming cancer cells and re-sensitizing them to drugs to which they’ve become resistant. Also, there’s a lot of interest in reprogramming cancer cells to make them more sensitive to immunotherapy. By using inhibitors of epigenetic regulators, it can make tumors more visible to the immune system. You’re doing more than just priming the immune system; you’re making the tumor cells more visible.

Outside of the lab, how are you acclimating to life in Rochester? We hear you’re a craft beer aficionado.

I do like to go out for beers with scientists. (laughs) I’m making my way through the small breweries, which are all over Rochester. I live in the Cobbs Hill area of Rochester and it only takes me 15 minutes to get anywhere! And I’ve discovered The Little Theatre and Jeremiah’s restaurant on Monroe Avenue. Jeremiah’s has great wings and I can watch the Bills. It was my haunt last fall.

So you are a Buffalo Bills fan. Do tell!

There’s only one way to be a Bills fan — you have to be a die-hard. There were only two times that the Bills came to town to play the Falcons in the whole 22 years I lived in Atlanta — and I went to both games. Most recent was the 2017-18 season, and the Bills won. Yay! It was very exciting, a beautiful day. ... I think there were more Bills fans at that game than Falcons fans — at least we were louder!