NIBIB’s California girl, Dr. Heather Kalish, was raised just a stone’s throw from the shores of Malibu Beach. Her mother, who was a solid role model as a working mom, was a California transplant from New York City who told and retold the story of “her day” when women had few professional choices: teaching, nursing, or a non-professional career that didn’t require much training. As an elementary school teacher, she taught everything from English to Math and Science. But credit for Dr. Kalish’s talent in math is given to her father, who was a California businessman with a strong, natural aptitude for numbers and math.
Very early, Kalish showed a proclivity for math and science, and took all advanced placement classes throughout her high school years. Her school offered uniquely challenging programs geared toward practical learning. For example, it had the distinction of being the only school in California at that time that was certified to use cadavers, and thus, Kalish learned physical anatomy while performing numerous dissections.
She recalls, “It was all hands-on learning. I had amazing teachers. They were so passionate and excited about helping students learn that they ran classes early in the morning in order to provide extra labs. Students were able to experience science, test the hypotheses, and that made it a whole lot more interesting. When you’re doing experiments—mixing things and seeing things happen—chemistry is a lot more exciting than just reading about reactions in a book.”
Chemistry turned out to have a special appeal that was more than fleeting fascination. “I went into college knowing I was going to be a chemistry major; it just always made sense to me, and I realize how unique that is. When I tell people I majored chemistry, I almost always get one of two responses: either they failed chemistry, or they hated chemistry.”
A career in medicine was also in the realm of possibilities, but Kalish wasn’t sure she wanted to work with patients. She admits, “I’m a very straightforward person, so I didn’t know if my bedside manner would get the stamp of approval. Then, my junior year in college, I did a summer research program at UCLA with an orthopedist who was using a special protein to try to regrow leg and arm bones that had been badly broken in motorcycle accidents. We seeded scaffolds to try to heal bones that were otherwise hopelessly shattered, and there was no other way to fix them.”
As the days passed, her desire for clinical medicine faded, and the vision of a career in the laboratory crystallized. “It was fascinating, and I realized that I liked the research side of things much better than working with patients.”
Her senior year of college at Colgate University required a year of research for graduation, and because she wanted to graduate with honors, she chose to also write a thesis and defend it. So by the time Kalish reached graduate school, she was knee deep in laboratory experience, and already had good practice in science writing and research defense.
By the end of her undergraduate program, she had seen quite enough of the snow and winter weather in New York, so weather-wise, the move back to California was easy. Orange County was close to her family and had a booming biotechnology industry, but Kalish knew it was “a hard place to live—expensive and busy.” But although she didn’t know where her career would lead, the field of research was calling her name loud and clear, and there were other voices gently prodding her back toward academic endeavors.
“Prior to my graduate studies, I had a female boss who said, ‘If you don’t go back for your advanced degree, you’re going to wind up doing basic science for the rest of your life. That’s fine for some people, but you’re not going to be happy doing that. At 21, it seems exciting, but at 41, it will be drudgery.’ Those words actually made the decision to go back to school easier. I finally felt like I was going back on my terms, and that I had made a definite choice rather than going just because I couldn’t find the perfect job or had nothing better to do.”
At UC Davis, Kalish continued along the academic trail with the goal of attaining a Ph.D. degree, but contrary to the clear vision she had in her earlier years, as she tried to focus, her ultimate professional destiny was more difficult to pin down, and there were other difficult choices.
“I taught through my entire doctorate program and won several teaching awards. My graduate advisor thought that I was a phenomenal teacher and told me I should become a professor. I do love to teach, but my biggest obstacle was that I didn’t want to write grants. That’s not something I enjoy, and it doesn’t come very easy to me.”
Finally, sheepskin in hand, she was seeking post-doctoral opportunities when a job offer came from the NIH Clinical Center. She describes the research path that led her to NIH. “Because of my earlier work, I was hired to do contrast agent studies with Dr. Joseph Frank in the Clinical Center. In graduate school, I was studying the breakdown of bruises. When you get a bruise, your body releases heme, which is an iron-based element in blood that breaks down over time. Iron is used in contrast agents for [magnetic resonance imaging] because of its paramagnetic qualities.”
From the beginning, her mentor helped her see the bigger picture of research at NIH. “He told me, ‘You’re a chemist now, but you should aim to become a well-rounded scientist if you want to continue here at NIH.’ He encouraged me to learn things in biology and clinical medicine, so I started working with cells, and growing cells.”
Over time, she worked with many people, including Dr. Terry Phillips of NIBIB. The dynamic they struck in the laboratory turned out to be the “dream team” experience she was looking for. She comments, “Terry was an immunologist who really needed someone who could run the machines in his lab and do the analyses. We turned out to be a very good team. He taught me the immunology, and now that Terry is moving on to retirement, I’m going to take over that work.”
Kalish is grateful for the influence and mentorship of many along her road to research, and she realizes that she is one of a still rare specimen in her field. She says, “My mom raised me to believe that a woman can do anything she puts her mind to. As for females in science, I realize I’m an outlier, but I’ve really never had anyone tell me I couldn’t do this because I was a female, and conversely, I don’t recall any time when I was given a preferential foot up. All my teachers in high school were male, but our classes were very well balanced in terms of numbers of women to men, and there was never a bias in treatment of females or males in science classes. During my undergraduate, of the 17 chemistry majors in my class, 9 were females, and most of them were headed toward doctorate programs or into medicine. Since then, I have primarily interacted with men in science: my graduate advisor was a male; my post-doc advisor was a male; and then there was Terry. So I’ve spent most of my career path with men, but they always expected me to do the job just as well as anybody else.”
One of the most consistent cheerleaders in Kalish’s professional life has been her husband. She says, “We met during my junior year in college, and he was actually very supportive of me going back for my doctorate. He’s an environmental civil engineer, so we both had specific paths that we had to travel as professionals, but he was with me all during my doctorate. We put a condition on our wedding—I had to pass my oral exams before we could get married, so I had to really concentrate on my studies. We understand each other because we’re both scientists, but we don’t compete because our fields are far enough apart that we don’t interact, but he was always very supportive. I remember many nights when I was in graduate school and he had a 9 to 5 job. I would have to go back to the lab for some experiment, and he’d just come with me and sit and read a book just so he could spend time with me. It was very nice.”
Since those days, the Kalish clan has grown to include two boys, ages 8 and 5, and they are both already getting a taste of professional life through their parents. “They think it’s cool that Daddy works with big machines. He helps build transfer stations and energy plants, so he works with the really cool stuff. But the kids have been in here on weekends a few times when I’ve had to come in and change cells, and they think this is pretty neat, too. My oldest is just now talking a bit about cells in his science class, and he knows his mom does that kind of stuff.”
The demands of a life in research do make having a family a bit of a challenge. “You can’t plan this stuff on an 8 to 5 schedule. When the cells are ready, they’re ready, and they have to be fed just like anything else. There are nights I run back here after the kids are in bed to take care of cells, and often on the weekends, but the kids are used to that, and I incorporate them into the mix as much as possible so they can get a feel for what I do. My mom is still a teacher, so she comes to stay for three months in the summer every year. That gives me more flexibility, but it definitely is a balancing act during the school year. It’s pretty much my husband and I calling back and forth, ‘Okay, who is going to pick up the kids?’”
But it’s not all work at the Kalish household. Decked out in a Looney Tunes sweatshirt, she admits she and her husband are both “big-time collectors” of Looney Tunes and Disney art. They are also both scuba divers. She says, “My brother got me into it. He got certified in California when he was 12 years old, and we have always loved the ocean.” Speaking of the relatively chilly waters off the California coast, she says, “You can do wet suit, but you’ll need a 7 mil and a hood. So it is cold diving, but the kelp forests are incredible. It’s all relative. I got certified as part of a PE class in college, which was in upstate New York. We took classes for several weeks, so I actually completed the class in November. It was quite a learning experience because I found out that even though it was snowing, the lake was still 65 degrees because it was holding heat from the summer. Two years later, my husband joined the same program, except it ended in April. It was 65 degrees outside, but it was 35 degrees in the water because it was holding the cold from the winter, so he was just freezing.”
They’ve been certified for almost 20 years now, and in that time, they have gone diving in many places including Australia, Tahiti, and Grand Cayman and St. Thomas in the Caribbean. She says, “We sometimes dive on luxury yachts where everything is taken care of, but we went on our honeymoon to a little place called Zihuatanejo where our boat looked as though it was hollowed out of a tree trunk and they ran a hose from the gas can to the engine. So it’s an understatement to say it was primitive, but the waters there were crystal clear and made the visibility fabulous for diving. It’s drift diving, so you ride the current and don’t expend a lot of energy, and the water was 90 degrees at a depth of 100 feet. It was amazing.”
Molokini, an island just off of Maui where part of the volcano has fallen into the ocean leaving a half moon-shaped island, is among their favorite dive destinations. “You can do two very different types of diving. There’s a beautiful reef inside the crater, but my husband and I are both advanced divers, and my brother is a Divemaster, so when the conditions are right, we dive the back side of Molokini, which is sheer wall. Wall diving is very different than reef diving because you’re exposed to the open ocean. Manta rays come through, and we’ve seen sharks, and during humpback whale mating season, you can hear the whales down there singing. It’s another world.”
Her passion for the sport is obvious when she says, “I think SCUBA diving is one of the most incredible sports a person can be involved in. You just float along the sheer cliffs watching all the amazing animals in their own habitat, so it makes us very aware of how we treat our planet. We’ve explored healthy reefs, and we’ve seen reefs that are destroyed or being rebuilt. My kids are chomping at the bit to be certified, and it will be nice when we can all just do it as a family.”
With her 7th NIBIB anniversary approaching in October 2011, Kalish is prepared to carry on the tradition in the lab she has inherited. “In terms of goals, I want to continue the very important work that Dr. Terry Phillips has been doing. He approached his work with the goal of finding out how small we could go and still get solid biological information out of things, and that mindset can have application in so many different areas. It seems amazing now that I’ve done everything from stroke model research to sweat patch research where we look at biomarkers and the inflammatory process.”
As her career unfolds, a growing part of her motivation now derives from a place in her past when she witnessed the suffering of a close family member. “Diabetes is an area that really fascinates me. My grandmother had type II for many years, suffering almost every possible complication, and passed away when she was 60. That was very difficult to watch. Today, diabetics are living much better lives because of research, but we still don’t understand why it occurs or how it affects various things in the body. So instead of observing from the systems level, I’m looking at the cellular level. Things at such a small scale may provide the answers to a lot of the questions that remain.”
All in all, variety is still the spice of life for Kalish. “Terry was an immunologist and focused on that, but chemistry overlaps every aspect of biological research and disease, so I get to be involved in all sorts of research. I do love tackling a wide variety of different problems.”
Acknowledging her good fortune to have had such great teachers and mentorship along her path, she feels particularly deep gratitude for her experience with Dr. Phillips. “He was especially known for his work with newborn babies, and working with someone so gifted can be intimidating. He has so many years of experience, and his tremendous life experience is definitely linked to his ability to solve problems. Luckily, I’ve had the advantage to learn from one of the very best, and have had a lot of great support. I want to prove myself and live up to the challenges that Terry and others give me.”
-written by Jude Gustafson