The ACC Distinguished Cytogeneticist Award is awarded every two years, at the biennial ACC meeting, to an outstanding leader in the field who has made a significant impact on the field of cytogenetics, with contributions including, but not limited to research, teaching and mentoring. These awardees have led the way in making our field what it is today, have created a legacy of distinguished ideas and methodologies, and have raised up new cytogeneticists to lead the future.
T. C. Hsu – 2000
Catherine Palmer – 2002
Ellen Magenis – 2004
Jean Priest – 2006
Orlando J. and Dorothy A. Miller – 2008
Gordon Dewald - 2010
Janet Rowley - 2012
Dorothy Warburton – 2014
Kathleen Rao - 2016
T. C. Hsu – 2000
Dr. T.C. Hsu was awarded the 1st American Cytogenetics Conference Distinguished Cytogeneticist Award at the 36th American Cytogenetics Conference held in Galveston, Texas. Highlights of the evening included presentations by Dr. Robert Baker, Dr. William Brinkley, Dr. James Mascarello, Dr. Sen Pathak and Dindy Ramkissoon. Dr. Hsu has made significant contributions to the field of cytogenetics and continues to work at the University of Texas/M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, USA.
Catherine Palmer – 2002
Dr. Catherine Palmer was awarded the 2002 American Cytogenetics Conference Distinguished Cytogeneticist Award at the 37th American Cytogenetics Conference held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Highlights of the evening included presentations by Dr. Gail Vance, Dr. Daniel Van Dyke, Dr. Nyla Heerema, Dr. Gordon Dewald, and Dr. Stuart Schwartz. Dr. Palmer has made significant contributions to the field of cytogenetics and has served as the mentor for many of the current clinical cytogeneticists.
Ellen Magenis – 2004
The physician-cytogeneticist behind the disorder Smith-Magenis syndrome, Dr. Ellen Magenis has contributed significantly to the field of cytogenetics over the 35 years. From her early days of gene mapping to clinical diagnosis to microdeletion syndrome delineation, Dr. Magenis had taken advantage of each technological breakthrough, combined with her clinical acumen, to stay on the cutting edge of cytogenetic research and clinical testing. Born in Gary, Indiana in 1925, Dr. Magenis received her BA in zoology from Indiana University in 1946 and her MD from Indiana University Medical School in 1952. While serving in the role of devoted and nurturing other to her six children, Dr. Magenis completed a residency program in pediatrics at the University of Oregon Medical School (now Oregon Health and Science University) and then joined Dr. Fred Hecht for a 3-year fellowship in medical genetics. She became an instructor in the Department of Medical Genetics and the Crippled Children’s Division and quickly rose in rank to full professor in 1980. She is board certified in pediatrics by the American Board of Pediatrics, and in clinical genetics by the American Board of Medical Genetics. A founding fellow of the American College of Medical Genetics, she served in many editorial boards and had published over 150 papers, 120 abstracts and 20 book chapters. She has served as teacher and mentor to numerous medical students, graduate students, residents and fellows. On the regional level, Dr. Magenis served as Director of the Pacific Northwest Regional Genetics Group Cytogenetics Quality Assurance Committee. Nationally, she has been a member of the Southwest Oncology Group since 1985, serving as Chairman of the Cytogenetics Committee for eleven years, and filled the role of Chairman of the Germ Cell Tumor Cytogenetics Subcommittee, Children’s Cancer Group. Her devotion as advocate for patients and their families is evident locally and nationally by her efforts on the board of PRISMS (National Smith-Magenis Syndrome Association), the Angelman Syndrome Association, the Prader-Willi syndrome association, the Multnomah County Prader-Willi Project Advisory Group and the Prader-Willi Parent Support Group of Oregon. Dr. Magenis is currently contributing her expertise fulltime at Oregon Health and Science University as Professor of Molecular and Medical Genetics, Pediatrics and Child Development and Rehabilitation Center (CDRC), Medical Director of Cytogenetics for the Department of Molecular and Medical Genetics, CDRC. Dr.Magenis is Director of the Chromosome Clinic and a faculty geneticist for the Genetic and Birth Defects Clinic, CDRC, where she is a fully active clinician, continuing her tender patient care.
Jean Priest – 2006
Orlando J. and Dorothy A. Miller – 2008
Orlando (Jack) Miller, M.D. (1950, Yale) and Dorothy Anne (Sandy) Miller, Ph.D. (1957, Yale), are the co-recipients of the ACC’s Distinguished Cytogeneticist Award for 2008. While they have made significant independent contributions, their joint research has had a larger impact on human and mammalian cytogenetics. They have trained more than 60 graduate students and fellows, served on numerous editorial and scientific review boards, and published over 250 papers, aided by grants to one or the other as Principal Investigator from the NIH, NSF, March of Dimes, and other organizations. They have influenced two generations of geneticists during their more than 40 years of research, teaching and service.
Jack, an obstetrician and gynecologist, received training in genetics (1958–1960) with Professor Lionel S. Penrose at the Galton Laboratory, University College London. They helped usher in the field of human cytogenetics by reporting, with Charles Ford, the first XXY/21-trisomic male (1959) and, independently, an XXYY male (1961). Jack moved to Columbia University in 1960 and, with Roy Breg at Yale, found still more chromosomal causes of infertility and mental retardation, e.g., an XXXXY male (1961). Jack spent a sabbatical year, 1968–1969, with Professor Henry Harris at Oxford University. Using the new technique of Sendai virus-induced somatic cell hybridization, they produced the first evidence for the existence of tumor suppressor genes.
In 1964, when their children were 4, 6, and 8 years old, Jack’s wife Sandy joined his research group and played an increasingly important role, especially in chromosome banding, mapping and comparative cytogenetics. The O.J./D.A. Miller team were the first to use interspecific somatic cell hybrids with a chromosome banding technique to assign a gene to a specific autosome (1971). They were the first to identify every mouse chromosome by a banding technique, to assign most of the mouse linkage groups to specific chromosomes, and to develop a simple way to determine the centromeric end of mouse linkage groups (1971). With Dr. B.F. Erlanger, they produced Q-, G-, R- and other banding patterns using only antibodies to the nucleosides A, T, or 5-MeC (1972–1974). They demonstrated that the absence of human ribosomal RNA and lack of silver staining of the remaining human NORs in mouse-human hybrid cells is due to the loss of one or more non-acrocentric human chromosomes, the first evidence of species-specific rRNA transcription factors. They confirmed this with Dr. Carlo Croce by showing that in rodent-human ‘reverse’ hybrids that tend to lose rodent chromosomes only human NORs are silver stained and only human 28S rRNA is transcribed (1976–1977). The Miller group discovered, in two cancer cell lines and as a normal human variant, homogeneously staining regions (HSRs) containing amplified ribosomal DNA. In all of these cases, most of the amplified rRNA gene copies had been inactivated by massive DNA methylation (1981). Dr. D.A. Miller led comparative studies on great ape chromosomes and their evolution (1977), studies on chromosome-specific human and mouse satellite DNA sequences (1990, 1991), and comparative mapping of human and a marsupial by in situ hybridization with human gene probes (1994).
Jack served on the editorial board of Cytogenetics (1961–1972), American Journal of Human Genetics (1969–1974 and 1980–1983), Human Genetics (1978–1998), and Chromosome Research (1994–1997). He was associate editor of Cytogenetics and Cell Genetics (1972–1996) and of Genomics (1987–1993). He served on scientific advisory committees for the National Foundation – March of Dimes (1967–present), the American Cancer Society (1974–1978 and 1986–1990), and the NIH (most recently, 1991–1994, on the Human Genome Study Section). Sandy served on the editorial board of Cytogenetics (1978–1984 and 1992–1996) and was an ad hoc reviewer for more than a dozen other journals.
Jack was Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and of Human Genetics and Development at Columbia University from 1969 to 1985. In 1982 he was certified in both Cytogenetics and Medical Genetics by the founding American Board of Medical Genetics and served as President of the ABMG in 1985 and 1986. In 1985 the Millers founded the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan, he serving as Chair and she as Professor. In 1983 Sandy had a sabbatical at the MRC Clinical and Population Cytogenetics Research Unit, Edinburgh, UK. She was Visiting Professor, Department of Genetics and Molecular Biology, University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’ in 1988 with Professor A. de Capoa and Distinguished Visiting Fellow in the Department of Genetics and Variation, LaTrobe University, Australia in 1991 with Professor Jennifer Marshall Graves. Jack and Sandy retired in 1996, but continue to periodically attend and contribute to scientific meetings.
Gordon Dewald - 2010
Dr. Gordon Dewald was a native of North Dakota. He earned a BS at Jamestown College in 1965, and an MS in biology in 1968 and a PhD in cytogenetics in 1972 at the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks. Like many of his contemporaries, his early training in cytogenetics employed non-banding chromosome staining methods and focused on organisms other than humans. His MS research established the karyotype of two subspecies of muskrats. His PhD research focused on meiotic studies of two species of bluestem prairie grasses. Dr. Dewald began his career in human cytogenetics at the beginning of the ‘banding era’ in the Pathology Department of UND during the completion of his graduate studies. In this capacity he developed Q- and G-banding methods and used them to study patient specimens referred to the state cytogenetic laboratory.
In 1972 Dr. Dewald moved his family to Rochester MN to begin a fellowship with Dr. Hymie Gordon in the Department of Medical Genetics at Mayo Clinic. His mission was to create a modern clinical cytogenetics laboratory for congenital disorders and to develop a computerbased videodensitometric method to digitize and analyze human chromosomes. His early publications predominately reflect his efforts to (1) develop chromosome banding techniques and implement modern cytogenetics into clinical practice, (2) define the embryological derivation of chimeras, (3) study the origin and behavior of structural abnormalities of X and Y chromosomes, and (4) automate chromosome analysis of human chromosomes. By 1973 this laboratory for congenital disorders was fully operational and Dr. Dewald was named its director.
In 1979 Mayo Clinic merged the cytogenetic laboratories for congenital disorders and hematological malignancies directed by Dr. Robert Pierre. Dr. Dewald was assigned director of this new laboratory. To accomplish the mission statement of Mayo Clinic, Dr. Dewald included education, research and clinical practice in the new laboratory. Over the years Dr. Dewald trained hundreds of cytogenetic technologists, taught countless fellows/residents in medical genetics, hematology and pathology, and annually delivered numerous lectures in the Mayo Medical School. In recognition of his efforts to train over 400 successful technologists and for his numerous contributions to cytogenetics and the Association of Genetic Technologists (AGT), he was awarded a life time achievement award by AGT in 2002. He also received an Outstanding Scientist/Physician Award in 2007 from the Mayo School of Health Sciences for his efforts in education and for his role in developing a formal cytogenetic technologist education program at Mayo Clinic.
Dr. Dewald became a leader in the cytogenetics quality assurances program of the Great Lakes Regional Genetics Group (1986–2000). He was invited in 1985 to be a founding member of a new committee of the College of American Pathologists (CAP) to create a national proficiency testing program in cytogenetics. He served on this committee for 20 years and was instrumental in the evolution of the CAP/ACMG (American College of Medical Genetics) proficiency testing program that exists today.
Beginning in 1975, Dr. Dewald became interested in chromosome abnormalities in malignant disorders. After 1979, his enthusiasm and opportunities for this subject grew significantly because cytogenetic studies of hematological malignancies became a major part of his clinical practice. His reputation for cytogenetic studies of malignant disorders led to invitations to participate in several International Workshops on Chromosomes in Leukemia and Lymphoma. Dr. Dewald promoted cytogenetic studies of malignant disorders through his role as chair of the Scientific Committee in the Chronic Myeloid Leukemia National Study Group (1995–1999), chair of cytogenetics in the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (1995–2006), chair of cytogenetics in the Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Research Consortium (2003–2006), and vice chair of the Cytogenetic Working Group to study Myelodysplasia (MDS) formed by the MDS Foundation (2005–present).
The emergence of techniques to visualize chromosome loci using fluorescence-labeled DNA probes (FISH) became important in the 1990’s. Dr. Dewald’s publication record attests to the fact that he was a pioneer in this field. He became well known through his publications and lectures for his efforts to validate new FISH assays and the implementation of this technology into routine clinical practice. He helped to formally define written methodologies to validate FISH methods for clinical practice in his capacity as vice-chair of the National Committee for Clinical Laboratory Standards subcommittee established for this purpose (1998–2000), and his continual interactions with the ACMG and CAP.
Mayo Clinic has rewarded Dr. Dewald for his 35 years of successful work in many ways. He was a two time professor in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine; Medical Genetics and Laboratory Medicine. He was the founder and first Chair of the Division of Laboratory Genetics (includes laboratories of cytogenetics, molecular genetics, biochemical genetics and fertility testing) at Mayo Clinic: he served in this capacity for 12 years (1992–2003). In 1996, the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology awarded him a distinguished career award for his contributions to the field. Dr. Dewald was elected President of the Sigma Xi Mayo Clinic Chapter (2005–2006) by his peers, served on the board of the Mayo Medical School, helped to introduce cost-effective genetic testing strategies within Mayo Clinic, and participated in many other important functions of Mayo Clinic.
Mayo Clinic’s principle maxim is ‘the needs of the patient come first’. This concept has been fundamental in the way that Dr. Dewald practiced clinical cytogenetics. In addition, the primary goal of his research projects has been to change clinical practice for the improvement of patient care. Dr. Dewald has published over 270 papers on his research, lectured in many countries and is respected for his expertise in clinical cytogenetics by cytogeneticists and physicians world wide.
It is with great sadness that we learned Dr. Dewald passed away on the evening of Friday, February 26, 2010 after a long courageous battle with acinar cell pancreatic cancer. Gordon is survived by his loving wife, Laurel, his daughter Stephanie Ann Dewald of Chicago, and his sons Anthony (Tony) and David and their families. He is also survived by his brother Stevan and sister Doris Dewald Hagel. Gordon is preceded in death by his parents, two brothers, and a sister. His family remembers him as a loving, affectionate, and devoted husband and father. As someone once said of other great losses, ‘we shall not see his like anytime soon’.
Janet Rowley - 2012
During this, the 2012 American Cytogenetics Conference, we honor the career of Janet Davison Rowley, a physician, scientist, and a founder of the field of modern cancer cytogenetics. Her contributions span over half a century and are represented by more than 400 publications, numerous awards and honors, among which are the American Society of Human Genetics Allan Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dr. Rowley has been a driving force for understanding the biological importance of chromosomal translocations and much of her most significant work has influenced the way leukemias and lymphomas are diagnosed and treated. Her seminal discoveries of translocations associated with different types of leukemia have become part of the standard of care in determining the optimal treatment for every leukemia patient. Her work on translocation breakpoints has shaped our biological understanding of the role of genes in cancer and has provided tools to track the effectiveness of treatment. Dr. Rowley’s study of translocations was also instrumental in the expansion of the fields of molecular genetics and molecular oncology and her continuous quest for the answers to fundamental questions led directly to the work she does now in the molecular biology of microRNAs.
Part of Janet Rowley’s success entails a woman who was at the right place at the right time. In 1940, she received a scholarship to college in a special program at the University of Chicago which combined the last two years of high school with the first two years of college. Thus, she enrolled as an undergraduate at age 15 and earned a PhB (1944), BS (1946) and MD (1948) at the University of Chicago. Her education in medicine did not start so easily; her entrance to medical school was delayed by a year because the quota for women (three) was filled. She graduated in 1948 and a day after graduation she married Donald Rowley. Janet completed a one year internship at a Public Health Service hospital before moving to Bethesda, Maryland where Don had accepted a position at the NIH. After three years, the couple returned to Chicago and Janet resumed her work part-time in well-baby clinics when Don began working as an experimental immunologist on faculty at the University of Chicago. In 1956 Janet took a job at a Cook County Hospital clinic working with children with developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome. Soon after, trisomy 21 was discovered to cause Down syndrome and she was inspired to study cytogenetics as a medical specialty.
Janet got her first chance to conduct research when Don took a sabbatical year in Oxford in 1961. Ever resourceful, she won a special fellowship from the NIH to study cytogenetics at Churchill Hospital in Oxford. This was extremely fortuitous timing, as the field was in its infancy and scientists were just beginning to explore chromosome replication. Her productivity was amazing— between 1962 and 1964, she published four seminal papers, and was first author on two (cited in Rowley, 2009). But what is more amazing is how she managed to do the analysis at this early stage in her career while also caring for four children.
After returning to Chicago, she obtained support from Leon Jacobson, a hematologist who had become an expert on the effect of radiation on blood cells from monitoring physicists working on the Manhattan project, just a couple blocks from the University medical center. Thanks to a stipend from the Atomic Energy Commission she could analyze the chromosomes prepared in Sweden and England. Janet rose through the ranks becoming Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago in 1977. She is currently the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, and Human Genetics.
It was after the family’s second stay in Oxford during 1970-1971 that Janet made her most significant discoveries. At Oxford she learned banding by quinacrine fluorescence and applied this technique upon returning to Chicago. Within the next couple of years she demonstrated that the small Philadelphia chromosome was actually a translocation between two chromosomes, hence characterizing for the first time the t(9;22). She had already described the recurring abnormality t(8;21) in 1972, and this second translocation convinced her that these were critically important in leukemia. Discovery of the t(15;17), t(6;9) and t(14;18) in lymphoma would soon follow.
Janet states in a detailed review (Rowley 2009), “This was a time of great excitement and wonder that is hard to describe.” Collaborating with many colleagues, including those involved with the International Workshops during the 1970’s and 1980’s, several main themes emerged which changed the way researchers and clinicians treat leukemia and lymphoma. Not only are there recurrent chromosome abnormalities, but they often strongly associate with specific phenotypes of leukemia and lymphoma, including the presence of cytogenetic-clinicopathologic entities. The phenotype even extends to how well patients respond to therapy, and the karyotype is a powerful independent predictor of survival.
In the three decades since, Dr. Rowley and her colleagues have discovered the MLL gene, characterized genomic breakpoints, and used cutting-edge microarray technology in the study of leukemia translocations. More recently, she has entered into the world of microRNAs. Her pace has not slowed in the lab; her goal remains to find the best treatments for leukemia: targeted and personalized. She has continued to pursue the answers to fundamental questions yet to be resolved: what causes translocations, and what are the critical steps of leukemogenesis?
As noted above, Janet Rowley has received numerous awards. We are very pleased to now add the American Cytogenetic Conference’s Distinguished Cytogeneticist Award to this list.
FURTHER READING: Reminiscences and summaries of early work
Chandra HS, Heisterkamp NC, Hungerford A, Morrissette JJD, Nowell PC, Rowley JD, Testa JR. 2011. Philadelphia chromosome symposium: Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Ph chromosome. Cancer Genet. 204:171-179.
Rowley, Janet D. 2008. Chromosomal translocations: revisited yet again. Blood 112:2183-2189.
Rowley, Janet D. 2009. Chromosomes in leukemia and beyond: from irrelevant to central players. Annu. Rev. Genomics Hum. Genet. 10:1-18.
Dorothy Warburton – 2014
During this, the 2014 American Cytogenetics Conference, we honor the career of Dorothy Warburton, PhD, a founder of the field of human pre- and postnatal cytogenetics. Her contributions span over half a century, which include serving on the Founding Board of the American College of Medical Genetics and the International Committee on Cytogenetic Nomenclature. For her work in human genetics and cytogenetics, she was awarded the William Allan Award in 2006, one of only five women recipients. Dorothy has been a driving force for understanding the biological importance of aneuploidies and spontaneous abortion in human development, health and disease.
Dorothy was born in Canada, and was interested in biology and natural history from childhood, as attested to by the dead animals she brought home to dissect and her frequent attempts to organize her friends into a ‘Nature Club’. She entered McGill University in Montreal as a Biology major but switched to a Genetics major after taking her first genetics course. At that point she was hooked. McGill was at that time one of the few places in North America where one could major in Genetics and also pursue a PhD in Human Genetics. Dorothy’s mentor at McGill was Clarke Fraser, who founded one of the first Departments of Medical Genetics at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. He introduced her to the scientific method, and also to the field of genetic counseling. Dorothy’s second area of interest was mathematics and statistics, and this played well into the human genetics of the day, which was largely based on diagnosis and risk estimates. Throughout Dorothy’s career, the over-all theme has been the application of rigorous statistical and epidemiological principles to the study of human chromosome abnormalities.
When Dorothy began working on her PhD thesis subject on the epidemiology of spontaneous abortion, human cytogenetics did not yet exist, nor did the knowledge of the importance of cytogenetic abnormalities to reproductive loss. She did, however, hypothesize that aneuploidy would explain many of the features of spontaneous abortions. When Carr did discover the major role played by chromosome abnormalities in 1964, it was obvious that further analyses of spontaneous abortions required a knowledge of cytogenetics.
Dorothy had married Toney Warburton, a fellow graduate student, in 1957. By the time they had both received their PhDs in 1963, the family included three children. Toney accepted a job in New York at Barnard College and Dorothy was lucky to be accepted into the lab of O.J. (Jack) Miller in Ob-Gyn at Columbia Medical School. A fourth child was born in New York. There she learned cytogenetic techniques and also was stimulated to think scientifically about human chromosomes. The field of human cytogenetics was new and exciting: karyotypes were the next-gen sequencing of the day. The field was small and everyone knew each other, and it was also immediately international in scope with major players in France, Canada, Germany, and Italy.
The ability to make chromosome preparations from blood samples soon made clinical studies possible. The demand from clinicians soon overgrew the abilities of research labs to comply. In 1969, Dorothy began one of the earliest hospital-based cytogenetic labs at Columbia- Presbyterian, with just one technician and herself, a microscope, a darkroom, and no computers. The lab was one of the first in the country to adopt G-banding procedures, and new discoveries of abnormalities such as insertions, dicentrics and paracentric inversions followed. Dorothy collaborated with Anne Henderson and Kim Atwood in one of the first studies to use in situ hybridization (radioactive label) to localize human genes (the rDNA genes). The group went on to study primate chromosomes, examining the evolution of the sites and numbers of the rDNA genes. This led to Dorothy’s involvement in the Human Gene Mapping group, where she eventually became curator for chromosome 13, and developed a series of single-chromosome hybrids for use in mapping.
In 1975, Dorothy began a collaboration with Jennie Kline and Zena Stein, returning to the past in a large 10- year epidemiological study of karyotyped spontaneous abortions. Unfortunately, this carefully controlled analysis ended up finding no factors other than maternal age that could be correlated with losses of particular karyotypes. They did show, unexpectedly, that the 45,X karyotype was associated with young maternal age. This study essentially showed that none of the obvious environmental factors such as smoking, alcohol, legal and illegal drugs, or occupation affected the risk of spontaneous abortion. This, plus the lack of any differences in statistics among races, geographical regions or socio-economic groups, led Dorothy to the idea that most reproductive loss is not due to a pathological condition, but rather to a programmed design set in our DNA.
Jennie and Dorothy continued to work on the causes of aneuploidy, following up Dorothy’s proposal in 1989 of the ‘limited oocyte pool’ hypothesis to explain the effect of maternal age on aneuploidy frequency. Carefully controlled studies on women with and without a trisomic loss explored the relationships between antral pool size and hormone levels: the most recent evidence is in favor of an association of FSH level with trisomy which is not mediated by oocyte pool size. She has also shown that the reported association of spontaneous abortion risk with skewed X-inactivation does not occur when rigorously controlled.
Dorothy was always concerned that good data were not available for counseling even in relatively common situations, such as a history of trisomy, or the presence of an apparently balanced translocation or a marker chromosome in prenatal diagnosis. Her multiple site studies of these questions provide risks commonly used today in genetics counseling. She speaks out whenever she sees data being used inappropriately, such when the biases of ascertainment are not considered in describing outcome, and her own work is always carefully controlled and analyzed. Dorothy has always embraced new technology as it has entered cytogenetics, from banding to in situ to FISH to microarrays. She believes that cytogenetics is defined by the questions it asks not by the techniques it uses. She was one of the first to publish on the clinical uses of microarrays, and has just completed, with Mike Ronemus and Mike Wigler, a survey of CNVs in two classes of congenital heart disease that shows a 5× increase in de novo CNVs over controls.
Dorothy admits that the time may be coming for her to retire, but she has so far been persuaded not to by the pleasure she still finds in teaching, research and the day to day operation of a clinical lab, which continuously produces new findings and new puzzles. — Peter E. Warburton, PhD
Kathleen Rao - 2016
During this 2016 American Cytogenetics Conference we honor the career of Dr. Kathleen Rao, who was born in New York City and raised in Roanoke Va. While she initially attended the Medical College of Virginia School of Nursing, she quickly determined this was not a good career fit and transferred to the College of William and Mary where she received her BS in Biology in 1970. Following college Dr. Rao entered graduate school in the Department of Zoology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) where she spent one semester in a laboratory that studied leaches and tarantulas. Again sensing a poor match, Dr. Rao decided to postpone graduate school, get a job and rethink her career options. Thankfully, given the choice of an entry level position as an AT&T telephone operator or a position as a technician in the new Clinical Cytogenetics Laboratory at UNC-CH, Dr. Rao chose the latter. From 1971 to 1976 she functioned as both senior technician and supervisor in this laboratory with Dr. Phil Buchanan, and a cytogenetic superstar was born. While here, she perfected the art of cell culture, and learned to analyze and karyotype both solidly stained and later Q-banded chromosomes. Having identified her passion Dr. Rao’s re-entered graduate school as a student in the Genetics Curriculum at UNC-CH where she worked in the laboratory of Dr. H. Neil Kirkman, an internationally known biochemical geneticist. She earned her PhD in 1980 and accepted her first faculty position at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC where she established their first clinical cytogenetics laboratory and functioned as the Laboratory Director until 1984. It was here that she learned the art of G-banding, a technique that she brought to UNC-CH when she returned in 1984. From 1984 until her death Dr. Rao rose through the ranks to become a tenured professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, and a research professor in the Department of Genetics while also serving as Director of the Cytogenetics Laboratory at UNC Hospitals.
During her long career, Dr. Rao made numerous contributions to not only the field cytogenetics but to the broader field of medical education. She was a member of the ad hoc committee established to form the North Carolina Medical Genetics Association which advocates for genetic education, and promotes both the sharing of genetic information and the availability of high quality comprehensive genetic services for the citizens of NC. She was a member of this organization from its inception in 1984, and served as President from1990-1991. Dr. Rao was also a primary mover in developing cytogenetics proficiency testing long before the College of American Pathologists (CAP) provided this service. She served as coordinator for the Southeastern Regional Genetics Group (SERGG) Cytogenetics Laboratory Proficiency Testing Program (1986-1990) and was a member of the Council on Regional Networks (CORN) Quality Assurance Committee (1995-1998). Dr. Rao was also a Founding Fellow of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG) and served as a member of the ACMG’s Laboratory Quality Assurance Committee (2003-2010). From 2007 to 2010 she functioned as Chair of this group, restructuring the single large committee into the productive subcommittees that exist today. As Co-Chair of the ACMG Salary Survey Work Group (2006-2008) and a workgroup member (2008-1010), she was instrumental in establishing the first and only salary survey specific to board certified medical geneticists. Dr. Rao also served on the ACMG Board of Directors (2009-2015), functioning as the Board Liaison to the Laboratory Quality Assurance Committee while also serving as the Vice President for Laboratory Genetics (2013-2015). Additionally, she was an ACMG representative to the CAP Cytogenetics Resource Committee (1998-2005) serving as Vice Chair from 2003 to 2005. She was twice elected as a member of the International Standing Committee on Human Genetic Nomenclature (2007-2016).
Dr. Rao served as head of the Cytogenetics Committee of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG) from 2011 until her death. She served on the COG Cytogenetics Review Committee since the inception of COG; and previously served on the Children’s Cancer Group Cytogenetics Review Committee. In addition to her efforts in these administrative roles, Dr. Rao contributed to COG and to advancing knowledge of pediatric cancer both as a devoted mentor and as an exceptional cytogeneticist. Numerous former trainees are now directors of COG-approved cytogenetic laboratories, and at the bi-yearly COG cytogenetics workshops, she continued to mentor and to teach with her informative and popular "You do the Review" presentations. It was Dr. Rao’s laboratory that detected the very subtle deletion within 5q that provided the foundational work for the exceptional case that served as a prototype for Ph-like acute lymphoblastic leukemia cases that responded to a TKI therapy; just one of thousands of outstanding analyses performed in her laboratory and interpreted by her. Dr. Rao also participated in the Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB)/Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology as the longest serving member of the Karyotype Review Committee (1986-2016), and as a member of the Leukemia/Lymphoma Correlative Sciences Committee (1988-2000).
In her role as an educator Dr. Rao was a great advocate for medical education at all levels. She was a leader in medical student education and curriculum design at UNC-CH, and both founded and co-directed the UNC School of Medicine’s Academy of Educators which supports and enhances the careers of teaching faculty. In recognition of these contributions a grant program for innovative teaching projects was named in her honor. As Director of the Cytogenetics Laboratory Fellowship Training Program at UNC-CH she taught and mentored numerous students who now work in the field throughout the U.S. Countless others including medical students, residents, genetic counselors, and technologists were also mentored. Kathleen was also a strong advocate for fixed term (non-tenured) faculty. She recognized the importance of these individuals and participated in multiple task forces at UNC-CH to improve the recruitment, retention and support of these individuals.
Throughout her career Dr. Kathleen Rao contributed to the standards, guidelines, and proficiency testing practices which are now the cornerstones of our field and part of her legacy. Dr. Rao leaves behind multiple well trained cytogeneticists, and countless others, with whom she shared much, including her appreciation for a beautiful karyotype or a long, complex, and correctly written string of nomenclature, her strong work ethic, her sense of collegiality and professionalism, and her very strong belief in the importance of good patient care. Her leadership, extensive knowledge base, sense of humor and kindness will be missed.Submitted by Kathy Kaiser-Rogers, PhD and Nyla Heerema, PhD