Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Elizabeth Lawlor brings her lab — and hope for a most cancers treatment — to Seattle Kids’s

(Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Lawlor)

A native of Vancouver, B.C., Dr. Elizabeth Lawlor is thrilled to be back in the Pacific Northwest. And she’s equally excited about joining the research community in Seattle, as Lawlor and her lab have moved to Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research.

Lawlor, who arrived in June from the University of Michigan, is co-center director for basic and translational science and the associate director for cancer biology at Children’s. She’s also Professor of Pediatrics and adjunct professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Washington and an affiliate member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

In recognition of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Lawlor is our latest Geek of the Week.

Lawlor’s research is focused on understanding the fundamental biology of Ewing sarcoma, an aggressive cancer that peaks in adolescents and young adults. She believes that better therapies and cures for childhood cancer are at our fingertips thanks to rapid advances in science and technology.

“I’ve never been more hopeful,” Lawlor said. “The application of technology and sophisticated computational tools to address the biggest gaps in biologic knowledge has revolutionized  cancer research over the past 10 years. … My greatest hope is that the discoveries we make in the lab will lead to advances in the clinic and there’s no better place where this could happen.”

She’s most excited about her lab’s work in identifying the distinct role of different subpopulations of cancer cells in the process of metastasis (tumor spread).

“I am more and more convinced that if we can understand the fundamental biology of these cells, where they come from, and how they are maintained, we will be able to shut them down,” Lawlor said. “To be able to prevent and treat metastasis would be a game changer for kids with sarcoma.”

Lawlor completed her MD at McMaster University and clinical training in pediatric hematology-oncology & PhD in pathology at the University of British Columbia. Following post-doctoral training at University of California, San Francisco, she began her career as an independent investigator at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. For 10 years, she was a faculty member at the University of Michigan, where her lab continued to research pediatric sarcomas. She also served as director of the Cancer Biology PhD graduate program and as associate director of education and training at the Rogel Cancer Center.

“I am an immigrant — I arrived from Canada in 2001 — and though I hold only two passports, I consider myself a citizen of the world,” Lawlor said. “In my personal life I am a wife, daughter, sister, aunt, and cat-mom. In my professional life I am a physician scientist, researcher, educator, and advocate for children.”

Arriving in the midst of a pandemic doesn’t make for the easiest of transitions. Lawlor is anxious to get out into nature and her new city.

“My husband and I are big hikers. We love the outdoors, and for me, spending time in the beauty of nature, particularly in the forests and the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, is hugely restorative,” she said. “I also love to eat, so I’m really excited about being able to get out and explore the restaurant scene in Seattle. It’s such a fabulous city and I can’t wait until we are able to really get out to enjoy it.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Elizabeth Lawlor:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I do cancer research that is specifically focused on cancers that affect children. I do it because I began my career as a pediatric oncologist, and all these kids are amazing and they deserve every chance to grow and live their lives cancer free. Anything I can do to help make that happen, is worthwhile.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? This is probably the most exciting time in cancer research in anybody’s memory ever. There is an intersection of fundamental knowledge about biology, advances in technology, tools in big data and informatics and genomics, and development of new drugs. All of those things together are Illuminating ways to better understand how cancer works and to find vulnerabilities that will allow us to dismantle it.

The Lawlor Lab team at Seattle Children’s Building Cure, from left: Nicolas Garcia, Mohamed Ahmed, Elizabeth Lawlor, Shireen Ganapathi, Katherine Braun, April Apfelbaum. (Seattle Children’s Photo)

Where do you find your inspiration? The kids, always. I am frequently reminded of why I do the work I do when I think of the many children and their families I cared for as a pediatric oncologist.

I often think of one little boy who had leukemia, but as part of his treatment required radiation of his brain and spine. His mom — who is so grateful he survived — once told me that she saw the light go out of his eyes after that treatment.

The thought of the damage that our cures create is unacceptable. We’ve got to do better.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? The computer because communication, science moves at such a fast pace now. We need computers to keep up, to communicate with collaborators, to be able to read papers as they’re published, to see data as it comes out in real time and to keep on top of the literature.

It’s not the big fancy PCR machine or fluorescent microscope. All of those things are fine and the technology is advanced, but day to day, being able to use a computer to communicate around the world, that is the most important.

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? Honestly, it’s full of unpacked boxes. My lab just moved from Ann Arbor to Seattle this summer, so I am still unpacking.

Ordinarily though my workspace is lots of piles of papers, lots of photographs of family and friends. A white board I can scribble on and when somebody is in my office, we can sort of just do random brain wavy things. I like having the ability to grab whatever I need on the spot.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) You have to enjoy it all. The best quote that I heard was someone talking about work-life balance and saying, “You’ve got to get rid of that term and talk about work-life integration.”

You have to integrate work into your life. And if it’s not integrated into your life, you’re unlikely to be satisfied because you constantly get a feeling that you’re stealing one from the other all the time.

Instead, you just integrate. I work hard and play hard. I take all my vacation. I try to limit evening and weekend work as much as I can. It’s not always possible, so I integrate it. I do it in a way to make sure that I’m going to have dinner with my husband, with my friends, people who are important to me, and then I’ll go back to work.

I integrate as opposed to trying to balance it all the time. And I think that that helps.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac, from day one. My grad school lab was a Mac lab. My postdoc lab was Mac lab. Ever since I started my own lab in 2004, it’s been a Mac lab.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Jean Luc, always. When I was a pediatric resident, I watched the “Next Generation” religiously.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time machine and I’d go forward.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … I’d let them know that I’d need more to really make a difference.

I once waited in line for … Concert tickets. Bruce Springsteen, 1985.

Your role models: I can’t put one name on it, but my role models are people who are unselfish in their time and commitment to the health and wellbeing of women and children. I would say that Melinda Gates is in that category for sure.

Girls and women and their plight in much of the world is one of the major human rights concerns that I have. I think it’s an issue that if I could sort of reprogram myself to be a different person, I would like to devote myself to that. I want girls around the world to be able to go to school. I want them to have equal rights to boys. I want women’s health to be equal to men’s health. I want violence against women to not be accepted as something that is just the way it happens.

I would say that people who tackle this issue are my role models because it’s tough and I wish I had the courage to devote my life to it.

Greatest game in history: I’m Canadian so it has to be hockey.

Best gadget ever: When I got my first Sony Walkman, that was pretty amazing. It was the concept of having portable technology. Everything has kept getting smaller and better ever since.

First computer: My first computer, to be fair, was a Commodore 64. When I was an undergrad in university, we had a Commodore 64 in our house. I had no idea how to use it. My brother used it in high school, and I kind of typed on it once in a while. I got my first computer as a grad student to write papers and it was a blue iMac G3.

Current phone: An iPhone SE. It’s compact. I don’t like big phones. It fits in my pocket. It has everything I need.

Favorite app: It’s the BBC World News. That’s the first app I go to every day when I get up and I open my phone.

Favorite cause: Childhood cancer research.

Most important technology of 2020: Video conferencing.

Most important technology of 2022: It’s going to be tracking viruses, community level tracking of viruses, predicting outbreaks. This is just the beginning, I think.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Embrace it. Embrace your geekiness. It’s thrilling to be at this intersection of technology and science and using it to advance the world. We should all be very proud of the fact that we’re geeks.

Website: Lawlor Lab at Seattle Children’s

Twitter: @Lawlorlab

LinkedIn: Beth Lawlor

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