Paula Stern is a Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She received a BA in Biology from the University of Rochester, a MS in Pharmacology from the University of Cincinnati, and a PhD in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan. Her postdoctoral training was with Dr. Lawrence Raisz. Her initial faculty appointment was as an Instructor in Pharmacology at the University of Michigan. She joined the Pharmacology faculty at Northwestern University in 1966 and remained there until her retirement in 2017. She has published over 200 papers. She served on the Councils of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics and the ASBMR, and on the Board of Trustees of the National Osteoporosis Foundation. She served as Vice-President of the National Osteoporosis Foundation and as President of the ASBMR. She is the recipient of the Shirley Hohl Service Award and the Louis V. Avioli Founders Award of the ASBMR. In 2010, the ASBMR established the annual Paula Stern Achievement Award, which recognizes an outstanding woman ASBMR member. Dr. Stern has received an Outstanding Alumni Award from the University of Michigan and a Distinguished Woman in Science and Medicine Award from Northwestern University. She has been recognized for teaching at Northwestern University through the Outstanding Teaching Award (student-selected) and the Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence. At her retirement, an annual Paula Stern award was established by the Department of Pharmacology and the Medical Women Faculty Organization to recognize a woman faculty member at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine for excellence in research and teaching/mentoring.
What inspired you to start a career in science?
I still have a clear recollection of when I ‘announced’ to my parents that I was going to be a scientist. I was 10 years old. When I think back on this event of 70 years ago, I am sure I had no real concept of what it would involve. However, I enjoyed reading about discoveries, was excited by trips to the natural history museum and the planetarium, and had subscription to Junior Natural History Magazine. I converted a closet in our basement into a darkroom, followed recipes from a chemistry set, kept a box with labeled pieces of rock (quartz, mica, granite, etc.), and examined plants and bugs with a magnifying glass and tweezers. My father was a dentist, and I watched him as he compounded in his laboratory. He gave me some materials to do some of my own mixing, even mercury, whose toxicity had not been recognized at the time. Probably I lost a few brain cells manipulating those fascinating silvery balls.
What do you feel your most exciting achievement/discovery in the field is? What are you most proud of in your career?
I can’t identify one single most exciting finding. Several studies had special significance to me. First was vitamin D work. Early in my career, I adapted the bone organ culture model that Larry Raisz invented and made it into a specific and sensitive bioassay for calcitriol, by first treating sera with extraction procedures and separating a fraction by HPLC. Together with Norman Bell and others we used the assay for clinical studies on the regulation of circulating calcitriol, finding abnormal regulation in sarcoidosis and tuberculosis. Also, in collaboration with Hector DeLuca, I used the cultures to compare the potencies of a number of vitamin D metabolites and analogs. This work established me as a bone researcher, and I am grateful to these two more senior investigators for their collaboration. Further work led to studies on other factors influencing bone. An early finding that was quite exciting was our observation in 1986 that the ‘antiestrogens’ (as they were then known) clomiphene and tamoxifen, prevented bone resorption in organ cultures. This was counterintuitive, and it was exciting to read subsequent clinical findings showing that the compounds had protective effects on bone when used as estrogen antagonists in breast cancer. Over the years, I had memorable collaborations with many trainees, visiting scientists and colleagues, for work on skeletal influences of diurnal rhythms, thyroid hormones, endothelins and immunosuppressants. In more recent years, the process of dissecting a unique PTH-stimulated G12/G13-Rho A-phospholipase D-protein kinase C signaling pathway and downstream responses was an exciting endeavor which again involved wonderful collaborators, and led us to o new findings regarding gene regulation by different signaling pathways. Our last work on sex-specific responses to hormones of human bone marrow precursor cells differentiated with mCSF and RANKL was leading down a new path. From all of this, I would have to say that I am most proud of having worked successfully with investigators at all levels in the process of scientific discovery.
What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
To be honest, it was funding. It seemed that so often the funds were reduced when the award was made. I was constantly searching for funds to keep things going. In more recent years it became worse as funding became tighter.
For many women, balancing a demanding academic career with a family is very difficult. Often women end up leaving academia or not advancing in their career. Do you have any advice to women on how to balance a successful career while maintaining a healthy family life?
My husband and I do not have children, however, I have observed trainees and fellow faculty members who have successfully combined career and family. No two stories are exactly alike. However, among the approaches that have been used have been a) parents or other family members who helped out for extensive periods of time, b) reserving a significant portion of salaries to paying for helpers and daycare, and, most important c) a supportive spouse, at times the main person taking care of the children, but at least sharing the responsibility. Having an supportive supervisor/chair and institutional rules that allowed for time off and, in the case of tenure, a delayed clock, were critical, but ultimately the successful women were good time managers and dedicated to their work.
Did you experience any difficulties establishing a career in an environment that was predominantly male dominated? What has changed since your career started and what do you think can be done to increase the number of women in science?
I entered the academic/research world at a time when things were just beginning to change. Women like Estelle Ramey and Neena Schwartz were raising awareness about the inequities. I am indebted to them as well as to the male colleagues who helped me establish my career. Having said that, I have had difficulties that males may not have experienced. When I applied to graduate school, one of the interviewers asked, “How long do you think you will stick with this before you become pregnant and quit?” Of course, no one could legally ask that now. I don’t recall exactly what I said, probably something to the effect that I planned to stick with it. Once I had a faculty position, there were still obstacles. I had heavy teaching responsibilities, teaching significant portions of three courses and directing courses. I wanted to take a sabbatical, but was told “that isn’t done anymore”. I worked out an alternative plan whereby I would make vacations into ‘summer sabbaticals’ in labs where I wanted to learn something, extending my time away until I had to be back for teaching. Subsequently, several male faculty members were able to take year-long sabbaticals. I clearly could have used a good mentor and learned how to negotiate. These are needs that institutions and professional organizations are trying to provide. Hopefully they will improve the environment for young women faculty. As I served on committees, it became apparent that as the percentage of women on the committee grew, the attitude towards issues concerning women changed, whether it was a grant reviewing committee, a faculty or student promotion committee or other. To increase the number of women in science, the achievements of women scientists need to be publicized, especially in materials taught in schools and articles read by the public.
What advice do you have for young women wishing to pursue a career in academic research?
Learn to write well. Take advantage of opportunities such as summer programs (I had two great ones at Woods Hole, one while in high school). Volunteer in a laboratory to experience the environment. Don’t give up. It is a fulfilling career.