Obama to honor UofC scientist

August 11, 2009 4:31:07 AM PDT
President Barack Obama will recognize a University of Chicago cancer researcher with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, on Wednesday. Dr. Janet Rowley's pioneering work with chromosomes revolutionized cancer research and treatment.

She's been honored many times for her discoveries but Dr. Rowley's true loves are outside the lab.

Dr. Janet Rowley's work days start and end on a red bike.

At age 84, Dr. Rowley still rides just about a mile between the lab and her Hyde Park home.

It's clear what keeps her going.

"My family and my husband and my grandchildren are still top of the heap," said Dr. Rowley.

Dr. Rowley didn't dive right into research after medical school. First, she raised her four boys while working part time in a clinic. Then, more than twenty years after earning her MD, Dr. Rowley turned up something big.

"As you're living this life, you don't think of yourself as a pioneer," said Dr. Rowley. "If you had told me that this would be the outcome, I would have thought that you were smoking something strange."

In 1972 at her kitchen table, she discovered that specific types of cancer are caused by certain genetic mutations called translocations. That research changed the way scientists look at and treat cancer.

"That you can be a wife, a mother, a scientist, and not just a scientist, the best at what you do," said Dr. Funmi Olopade. "She's amazing."

Dr. Funmi Olopade says Dr. Rowley's guidance at the University of Chicago motivates the entire cancer research team.

"To have somebody who's had that incredible career, continue to devote her career to helping other scientists get better, it's so inspirational," said Dr. Opolade.

Despite all of her accomplishments in the lab, Dr. Rowley's real pride is her garden.

"It's a great pleasure," said Dr. Rowley.

She loves to show off her plants.

"Not the typical vegetable garden, but iI don't do things that are typical I guess," said Dr. Rowley.

And she brags about her giant string beans.

"It is a labor of love, because there's a lot of labor in it," said said Dr. Rowley.

She says her discoveries are just like her bumper crop, products of hard work and a good foundation.

"The environment in which one is working or living is extremely important," said Dr. Rowley. "And I've had good environments at work and supportive colleagues, and the flowers in my garden have had a good environment."

Environments, that Dr. Rowley says, produced surprising, wonderful results.

"My research and the discovery was in lots of respects serendipity. I was looking to see just what there was and low and behold, it turned out to be a lot more than I expected," said Dr. Rowley.

Dr. Rowley's husband and family will join her in Washington on Wednesday. She's one of fifteen people receiving the Medal of Freedom.

Among the others are Senator Ted Kennedy and South African archbishop Desmond Tutu.


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