At first, Marisa Aitken found the idea of becoming a scientist repugnant.
“To me, science was mixing A and B together in a chemistry lab and seeing if they explode,” she says.
Instead, Marisa dreamed of emulating her father’s career as a physician. In college, she agreed to a summer research program only as the price of obtaining a letter of recommendation to medical school from her chemistry professor.
“Sure enough, I hated the first two weeks,” she recalls. “I had no idea what I was doing. I was counting cells in a microscope to see if certain drugs killed them.”
An MD/PhD student who worked across the hall brought Marisa to a children’s hospital and introduced her to a boy with leukemia, the disease she had studied so reluctantly.
Now approaching the completion of her own MD/PhD — offered jointly through McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences — Marisa weaves a synergy of medicine and science.
She spends most of her time in a laboratory researching leukemia, devoting Friday mornings to help treat patients at an MD Anderson leukemia clinic. Her clinical time keeps fresh in her mind the faces — and lives — behind the disease she studies. She also draws on her scientific knowledge to help patients understand leukemia and how new therapies work to heal their bodies.
“I’m so unbelievably privileged to be pursuing a career where I can engage my own curiosity in a way that benefits other people,” says Marisa, an inaugural recipient of the Dr. John J. Kopchick Fellowship at MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School. “That’s such a profound and wonderful position to be in.”
Several times a year, Marisa meets with a group unique to MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School called Ad Astra (Latin for “To the Stars”). The group provides a forum for female MD/PhD students to discuss challenges and opportunities in their future careers and learn from female leaders in the field. Ad Astra began as an initiative of Dianna M. Milewicz, MD, PhD, who was concerned with the number of female candidates dropping out of the program. Discussions have ranged from leadership and interviewing skills to family planning and obstacles women face in medical science.
“I’ve been really fortunate, for the most part, to be seen as a student or as a scientist and not specifically a female in those roles,” says Marisa, who believes society has become more accepting of women in scientific fields. “But I still try to avoid pitfalls like understating my opinion because I’m a woman. I think these are sometimes things that we subconsciously do because that’s what women around us do, whereas men are less likely to do those things.”
Reflecting on the disparity between the percentage of women in scientific degree programs and those who actually pursue careers in the field, she suspects family pressures and the realities of childbearing may lead some women to abandon their initial goals.
“I think starting a family while pursuing a scientific career is very manageable, but it requires more than just yourself,” says Marisa, whose husband works at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and discusses with her how they can support each other’s aspirations. “A supportive spouse or significant other really makes a difference.”
As she looks forward to a career as a physician-scientist, she hopes to split her time between leukemia research and clinical practice much as she does now. And Marisa hopes that girls with scientific aspirations will take one clear message from her accomplishments.
“Go for it,” she says. “If you are interested in something, and you want to do it, then pursue your passion.”