3 minute read

The Science of a Legacy





Like many scientists, George Hitchings and Gertrude "Trudy" Elion aren’t exactly household names, despite their incredible achievements. They are best known for winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988. Together, they created innovative drug treatments for leukemia, malaria, AIDS, and more. Those familiar with the history of Triangle Community Foundation may also recognize George Hitchings’ name; he started the Foundation with an idea, $1,000, and then later, his award winnings from the Nobel Prize.

Their groundbreaking work has changed hundreds of thousands of lives for the better. And thanks to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, their legacies continue to have an impact on scientific research and the next generation of scientists, today.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) was originally formed as the charitable arm for Burroughs Wellcome and Co., a pharmaceutical research company (now known as GSK) where Hitchings and Elion first began their work together. In 1994, BWF received an endowment and became an independent foundation dedicated to advancing the biomedical


Hitchings and Elion were both inspirations in BWF’s mission. Hitchings himself served as BWF’s chair from 1974 until 1990. Elion was also very involved in the Fund’s operations. When Hitchings died in 1998, BWF decided to set up a charitable fund at the Foundation in his honor, but they were not yet sure how to direct the funds. A year later, Elion also passed away.

“Trudy [Elion] was a real role model to a lot of us at the Fund,” says Victoria McGovern, Senior Program Officer at BWF. She laughs. “We knew exactly what kind of award she’d want set up in her name.”

Elion was committed to promoting the careers of young women scientists. And, despite its location in Research Triangle Park, BWF does not target local universities in its grantmaking. With these two ideas in mind, the Fund shaped their two new awards at the Foundation: the George H. Hitchings New Investigator Award in Health Research for veterinary students at NC State University and the Gertrude B. Elion Mentored Medical Student Research Award for

female clinical and doctorate students at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.

BWF’s thoughtful approach has paid off. These grants are almost magical for the students who receive them. Compared to large research grants like those from the National Institute for Health, ten thousand dollars may not seem like much. But for young scientists, these scholarships are a launch-pad for their careers. They offer a unique space for flexibility and creativity.

Kelli Gerken can attest to that. A graduate student of veterinary medicine at NC State University and a 2018 recipient of the Hitchings Award, Gerken studies human behavior toward animal products and health. The Hitchings award allowed her to travel to Ethiopia, where she worked to create a human-centered design project focused on female dairy farmers in Addis Ababa. The goal was to implement trainings that help women teach each other and create safer practices for their work.

“Seeing the people and being in the field first-hand completely changes the research,” says Gerken. She already



plans to return to Ethiopia over winter break to continue her work. “I have something I am really passionate about now, thanks to this award.” And the female farmers she works with have safer practices, better products, and healthier cows.

Women in Science

Elion got her toehold in the world of scientific and pharmaceutical research during World War II. For years, labs turned her away because she was a woman. Then the war came, and with it came a shortage of chemists, so she was finally able to get a job in a laboratory. Once the war ended, Elion had to struggle to keep her job in the male-dominated field. Today, the field of medical research is still largely populated by men, but that tide is shifting.

When Amy Wisdom received an

Elion award in 2016, she was new to her field. An MD/PhD candidate at Duke University, Wisdom works in a cancer biology lab, where she focuses on the use of immunotherapy in soft tissue sarcoma. "I was the first person studying the immune response within my lab,” says Wisdom. “There were experts in cancer and radiation, but not immunology. "

With the Elion award, Wisdom was able to go to the foremost conference on immunology. She brought what she learned back to her lab and infused it in her work, spreading the benefits of her award throughout her community.

She also began thinking more about the role of women in science. "The award started an awareness in my mind that female representation in science was an issue," she says. Wisdom was one of the early

organizers of Advocates for MD- PhD Women in Physician Science, a student group based out of UNC and Duke that supports and mentors women in their field.

Like Elion, Wisdom feels that diversity in the sciences will lead to greater research capacity and creativity. "We need people of all perspectives to contribute,” she says. “Women are smart, and they have important scientific insight. We need to feel like we can be involved."

Lee Hong, a 2017 Elion Award recipient, echoed the sentiments from Wisdom on women. “[As a woman] in science, it can be hard to feel like you belong,” says Hong. “You don't see a lot of people who look like you or have the same concerns as you."