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Cancer researcher Karen Knudsen, PhD, has her own "formula" for scientific success.

An associate professor in the cell biology department and former director of the cell and cancer biology graduate program, Karen Knudsen, PhD, is the winner of this year’s Young Investigator Award from the Society for Basic Urologic Research, presented to an up-and-coming “under 40” who has made significant contributions to the field. 

Date: 7/1/2006
By: David Bracey
Phone: (513) 558-4519
Today’s research funding situation is “dire,” she says.

But UC scientist Karen Knudsen, PhD, has her own formula for keeping her mind clear while working nights on what seem like endless grant applications to the National Cancer Institute.

The adventures of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Jeeves “provide the kind of levity you need when you’re bogged down writing a five-year, very serious plan. When you hit those road blocks, refreshing your mind with comedy helps keep you from becoming an angry individual,” Knudsen says.

“Wodehouse is just so silly, so funny, that after all these years, and maybe having read all his books three times, I can’t help but laugh.”

This Wodehouse fan—Jane Austen too—is a high-profile prostate cancer researcher as well as a wife and mother of two, including 7-year-old Dylan, whose interests and constant questions even now prefigure a budding immunologist.

“It probably comes at his age in grade school from having to wash his hands incessantly,” Knudsen says, “and it leads to discussions about germs, and what’s the difference between viruses and bacteria, and what’s an antibiotic and, Mommy, what does my body do about a virus …!”

An associate professor in the cell biology department and former director of the cell and cancer biology graduate program, she’s also the winner of this year’s Young Investigator Award from the Society for Basic Urologic Research, presented to an up-and-coming “under 40” who has made significant contributions to the field. 

Her expertise has been recognized in the scientific community. Knudsen is an associate editor for the leading cancer journal Cancer Research, and she sits on the editorial boards of several other major cancer journals.

Science has always been a big part of the life of this self-confessed “Army brat and nomad.”

Her dad a retired Army Special Forces intelligence officer (Delta Force, Green Beret) and former CIA officer, her mom a BS in psychology who went into the business world, she says she loved science starting as a “tall, shy and very, very skinny” fifth grader.

“There was no question,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to do. I never really considered anything else.

“I’m not sure where the scientist in me came from. That’s just what took me in school. I loved it.”

What draws her first, she says, is “the puzzle, and then the satisfaction of discovery and learning.

“I always tell my graduate students to expect gullies in their research,” she explains. “You go for long periods when things won’t work or don’t make sense, and that will frustrate you. But if you become emotionally brought down by it, you’ll never overcome it. That’s really where you must dig in your heels and persevere.

“When things don’t make sense, that’s really when a person’s mettle shows. You have to stay in there, think outside the box, and find new ways to approach the problem.”

The process can get “a little bit depressing,” she adds, but the incentive to keep going is the high that comes with figuring it all out.

“For me that’s science,” Knudsen says. “I can subsist on that high for long periods that get me over the more difficult times. That’s the satisfaction in studying something like prostate cancer, which is such an important disease. I love science, but I’m not sure I could study science for science’s sake. I couldn’t be as committed if I went into my lab and didn’t think that the things we do could ultimately have a positive impact on someone. That’s necessary for me.

“The reason I chose prostate cancer,” Knudsen explains, “is that it’s such a unique tumor type. It’s treated very differently and acts very differently than any other kind of tumor. And that’s what draws me to it. There’s a specific puzzle about prostate cancer that’s captivating.”

Knudsen actually got into prostate cancer research thanks to former UC faculty member Webster Cavenee, PhD, now director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and an authority on pediatric tumors and adult brain tumors.

As a grad student at UCSD she had worked on pathways that regulate cell growth in yeast. 

“At that time the mechanics of how cells proliferate were being understood,” she recalls, “and I was part of that. But I wanted to apply my work to mammalian systems or to humans, and what you apply it to, of course, is cancer, because cancer is a disease of uncontrolled growth.”

Moving on to work for Cavenee in the late 1990s, she found her boss eager to start a prostate cancer research group to help meet the needs of a growing prostate-prone population.

“Together we asked what the key problems were,” she says, “and we built the group from scratch based on his knowledge of cancer biology and mine of endocrinology and cell division. Now I am the Cavenee prostate cancer group. Thanks to Web, it moved to Cincinnati with me.”

Her professional problems, Knudsen says, are those faced today by all scientists—cutbacks in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding.

“We’re all spending so much more time writing grant applications, it’s becoming difficult to allocate as much time in the lab as we used to,” she says, “The National Cancer Institute, which my grants come from, is only funding about 10 percent of applications, and even those funded are cut 30 percent. This really is a very challenging time.

“It’s what keeps me awake at night, thinking about how to get the work done.”

Part of the solution, Knudsen says, is for scientists to do a more effective job communicating what they do to the public. 

“Although at UC we do a good job at the grassroots through organizations like the prostate cancer working group, overall scientists across the country are not projecting what the output is. Major strides, especially in cancer research, that have come out in the last 10 years haven’t been translated well enough to the public. I also don’t think the general public understands the impact of NIH budget cuts on university structure and function,” she says.

Her goal as a scientist, Knudsen says, besides raising two potential new researchers in her sons—immunologist-to-be Dylan and Liam, 2—and sharing life’s load with cancer biologist husband Erik Knudsen, PhD, “is to see that some of the things we do make it to the bedside.

“I want some our ideas to get through, which is an ambitious thing to ask, but I’d like to at least contribute to something that benefits patients. If I didn’t believe that’s why I’m walking into this building every day, I wouldn’t do it. That’s really why I’m here, and I think we have as good a chance as any of succeeding,” she says.

“I’m a happy woman,” Knudsen adds. “I love what I do, I have the means to do it—touch wood. And I’m lucky enough to do it and have a great family. That’s all I can ask.”