January 2002

Women in Science: Examining Opportunities and Barriers

Bioterrorism: From the Abstract to the Concrete

High-Flying Physicist: An Interview with Katharine Blodgett Gebbie ’57

Exploring the Fundamental Mechanisms of Inheritance and Development

Trapping Atoms to Observe Their Interactions

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© 2003

 

Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

Exploring the Fundamental Mechanisms of Inheritance and Development
By Karen Young Kreeger

Judith H. Greenberg, Ph.D. ’72

On the evening of Aug. 9, 2001, like most of her colleagues at the National Institutes of Health, Judith H. Greenberg, Ph.D. ’72, watched President Bush's televised speech on stem-cell research. At the end of the speech, he mentioned that some 60 cell lines fitting his criteria for public research funds were already collected and would soon be in an online registry.

"As I was lying in bed that night, I said to myself: ‘You know, I've had a lot of experience with bioethical issues. I've had a lot of experience with cell lines,’" recalls Greenberg, director of the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), Bethesda, Md. "I just had a sense that I'm going to have an involvement in this somehow."

At 9 a.m. the next morning, the phone rang at her desk. It was Ruth Kirschstein, acting NIH director, asking Greenberg to set up the Web-based stem-cell registry. Greenberg's responsibility was to decide what information was essential for the registry, assemble it from the providers of the cell lines and organize it in a user-friendly way, with the aid of a Web designer. "It was an extremely interesting process because there was a lot of politics that went into this, and there were a lot of expectations about these cell lines. My job was to make sure these expectations were met," she says.

The Big Questions

This description could sum up any of the issues that Greenberg has taken on in her 20 years in administration at NIGMS — large, complicated and sometimes messy projects that look at the big picture. She attributes her love of the overarching questions that confront science to her days at Bryn Mawr studying under the late Jane Oppenheimer ’32, the former William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Biology and the History of Science.

"She was a tremendous influence on me — not on the research or administration I ended up doing, but in terms of teaching me to think about the big questions." Greenberg was Oppenheimer's last Ph.D. student; her thesis focused on the development of thrombocytes in chick embryos. Thrombocytes are akin to platelets, the blood clotting cells in mammals.

Greenberg’s husband, Warren, now a professor of health economics at George Washington University, also received his Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr in 1972, in economics. Before the Greenbergs were married Judith was at Boston University finishing up her M.A. in biology. Warren was already working on his Ph.D. at Bryn Mawr, and when they decided to get married, he suggested that she apply to the College. "I had heard of Jane Oppenheimer, and she was a big attraction for bringing me to Bryn Mawr," she recalls.

After leaving Bryn Mawr, Greenberg did a postdoc at the American Red Cross National Blood Research Laboratory, Rockville, Md. In 1974, she became an intramural scientist at the now National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, Bethesda, Md., returning to her "first love," developmental biology. At NIDCR she studied the differentiation of neural crest cells, important cells in early animal development. In 1981, she moved into administration at NIGMS, becoming a branch chief and eventually the director of the division in 1989. As director, she administers and oversees research in basic developmental biology and genetics, which covers an approximately $400 million research-grant portfolio.

Controversial Issues

"I guess my career path has been very straight," Greenberg comments, adding that because of its variety, the position is "anything but boring." She doesn't shy away from controversial issues. In fact, she relishes ones fraught with ethical quandaries. One of her largest responsibilities from the time she started at NIGMS was to oversee the Human Genetic Cell Repository, a collection of cell lines from individuals with genetic disorders, family members and controls. A portion of the collection also contains samples from members of identified populations such as those of Northern European, African American, Middle Eastern, and Japanese descent. Cell lines from these populations are useful to researchers studying genetic variation.

A few years ago geneticists studying human variation suggested that NIH should be collecting more samples from identified groups. "We realized that before collecting these samples we needed to talk with the various communities to find out their concerns about the potential for discrimination and stigmatization."

Airing these concerns was the impetus for the First Community Consultation on the Responsible Collection and Use of Samples for Genetic Research, held on September 25-26, 2000, which Greenberg organized. Seventy-five people, mostly nonscientists from diverse ethnic and racial groups from outside NIH, plus an equal number of NIH administrative staff, attended the meeting. The participants from different ethnic and racial groups had a lot to say that went beyond sample collection, recalls Greenberg. "It made me realize there was a great lack of communication between researchers and the public." The report of the meeting can be accessed at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/news/reports/community_ consultation.html.

Since the meeting it has been Greenberg’s mission to encourage community consultation in situations where it is warranted, and she finds that scientists are beginning to understand the value of community involvement. She chairs a working group within the NIH that is putting the finishing touches on a document titled "Points to Consider When Planning a Genetic Study that Involves Members of Named Populations."

"It's not a new set of requirements or rules," explains Greenberg. "It is meant to be a consciousness-raising document."

Besides this report, Greenberg says, the other major project on her desk is putting together a basic stem-cell biology workshop to be held in June 2002, an outgrowth of her work on the registry. "Up until now NIGMS has had really no interest in stem cells because this has not been a basic research question," she says. "But the more I learned about stem cells, the more I realized that one area of research is really missing." The more clinically oriented institutes involved in stem-cell research focus on how stem cells differentiate into other tissue types, but have not addressed the underlying mechanisms that keep cells undifferentiated, or why they start to differentiate.

Greenberg says the workshop aims to bring together basic scientists with some of the foremost stem-cell investigators to promote collaborations, as well as to determine what kind of program announcement or request for applications NIGMS can devise for the next phase of basic stem-cell research.

About the Author

Karen Young Kreeger is a science journalist who writes on biomedical and women’s health topics, as well as careers in science. Her most recent work has appeared in Bioscience, Genome Technology, Muse and The Scientist.

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