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Diane Jelinek, Ph.D., is the new dean for research at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, responsible for all Mayo research activities and programs in the state. A self-described “card carrying immunologist,” Dr. Jelinek has devoted her career to studying cancers of the immune system, with a particular focus on multiple myeloma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia or CLL.

Since 1991 she has served in numerous roles including chair of the department of Immunology, dean of the Mayo Graduate School, and as a consultant in the Division of Hematology. She earned her doctorate in Immunology from the Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, with two postdoctoral fellowships in Molecular Genetics and Internal Medicine.

She recently spoke with Discovery’s Edge on her new role and vision for research in Arizona.

Q: Let’s go back to the beginning. We hear you once had hopes of becoming a veterinarian when you began your undergraduate studies in microbiology at Michigan State University (MSU). Tell us about that.

A: I love animals. I felt that was my calling. I chose MSU because of its veterinary school. It was very competitive to get in. I applied after my sophomore and junior years and did not get in. In my senior year I got an interview, but did not get in. You learn the most from your failures. It opens up new pathways.

I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in microbiology but had no other back up plans.

Q: What led you to pursue immunology?

A: Upon graduation I got a job at the Michigan Department of Public Health in the serology division. I began doing small research projects during the two years I was there. My mentor, Dr. Budzko, said “You seem to enjoy research,” and encouraged me to apply to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. That was where I got my Ph.D. in Immunology. Being at that institution and the training I received, opened up so many doors for me. After six years of post-doctoral training, it was time to look for a job. The Department of Immunology at Mayo Clinic offered me a position. I just celebrated my 24th anniversary at Mayo.”

Q  What motivates the scientist within you? What keeps you going?

A: Being a scientist is a job with lifelong learning. It’s about reading the literature, reading an article and the wheels start turning. You wonder if this discovery can be linked to the diseases my lab studies.

The big questions are always the hardest questions to answer and the ones that keep you awake at night.

When I was a graduate student, a professor said to be successful as a scientist you have to keep 90 percent of your thoughts on your research. What keeps me going is always trying to answer those big questions.

I once met a patient with multiple myeloma and she said, “Diane, what can you tell me that’s going to help me?” That was very impactful.

Scientists ultimately want to make a difference – discover something that will be of some value – identifying new targets that, if you had new drugs, would benefit people; identifying biomarkers that might predict disease progression.

Many of us embrace education. I like to lecture. I like to mentor graduate students – that also motivates me in my work.

Q: It seems like there is a lot of buzz around immunology these days. Do you feel as though immunologists are finally getting the attention they deserve?

A: I’m biased, but I think that immunology is squarely at the center of health and disease. There has become such as awareness of just how important cells of the immune system are to a lot of different health conditions – inflammation, cardiovascular issues, cancer.

Between 30 to 40 percent of all clinical codes are linked to some dysfunction of the immune system – whether it is excessive inflammation, autoimmunity, or cancers of the immune system.

There’s been a lot of excitement in the last year or two. I think what really jumpstarted people getting excited about immunology are recent success stories showing that immune system manipulation can be very effective in treating certain kinds of cancer. That was a prediction all along. Scientists have made incredible inroads into better understanding there are certain cell types and signals that can actually dampen the immune system. Can we be clever enough to figure out how to keep the cancer cells from dialing down the immune system?

 Q: What excited you most about becoming the Dean of Research in Arizona?

A: I’ve always admired from afar the ability in the Valley to form these very unique partnerships. By having a university like Arizona State University –  which is strong in wide number of areas of research such as engineering and geology – it is very exciting marrying that of expertise with Mayo biomedical research scientists. There is a lot of emphasis on innovation and the potential of the Arizona Biomedical Corridor. It’s exciting to be at the table and think of ways to help leverage the land surrounding Mayo’s Phoenix campus with creative partnerships.

We have a strong comprehensive cancer center, which has direct advantages to patients in the Valley. Patients are drawn to a place that has strong research and innovative trials.

There is also a strong emphasis on discovery and team science, clinical trials, and entrepreneurship is in motion here at Mayo in Arizona, which is great.

Q: What is your vision?

A: I think it is crucial, given the competition in the Valley, that we expand the benefit of the Mayo enterprise. There is a lot of outstanding research that is being done enterprise wide. We need to communicate better what that expertise is and increase enterprise wide collaboration.

We need to continue to leverage our partnerships with ASU and TGEN. We are also exploring research collaborations with Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

We need to integrate research more with the clinical practice. How do we connect those dots to make certain all of our scientists are participating in projects relevant to the clinical practice and strengthening those collaborative ties.

I am also very excited about how we are recruiting physicians with academic backgrounds in the clinical departments. Those physicians interested in research will also differentiate the practice and create more opportunity for research. That’s a win-win.

Q Do you ever look back and wonder what life would be like if you had become a veterinarian instead?

A: I look back and think I would have been bored.

November 2015