Rebecca Jackson launched her first formal physiology study in the eighth grade. With the support of her rodent-tolerant family, she studied the effects of varying thyroid hormone levels on the physical characteristics of a small rat colony she housed in her living room.
The project taught her an early lesson about unexpected results in scientific research: "I learned from that study ... that when you are very hypo- or hyperthyroid, you are infertile," Jackson says. As soon as her experiments ended, the rats' natural fecundity kicked in and the colony became a rat metropolis, testing her family's patience and driving the family dog crazy.
The rat study also commenced a lifelong fascination with the endocrine system. More than 40 years after those early experiments, Jackson has risen to become the associate dean for clinical research and director of Ohio State University (OSU) Medical Center's Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS). She's also vice chair of the steering committee for the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), a 15-year project sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to address the major health issues facing postmenopausal women. Whether leading a clinical study, mentoring the next generation of physician-scientists, or cheering for Ohio State's football team, Jackson approaches all of her pursuits with passion.
"Becky Jackson is an amazing force," says Marian Limacher, principal investigator for the University of Florida WHI center in Gainesville and a member, along with Jackson, of the WHI steering committee. "She has more energy than any of us."
The game changer
Jackson is an Ohio girl at heart. She attended Ohio State University for her undergraduate and medical training, leaving to complete her medical residency and fellowship training at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
It was during this sojourn that Jackson's life changed forever: In the middle of her medical residency, a spinal cord injury landed her in intensive care. It would have been understandable if she had decided to pull back from her duties, perhaps even to modify her career expectations. But her mentor, renowned human geneticist Victor McKusick, then director of medical residents at Hopkins, made it clear even as she was in recovery that her injury should not impede her return to the demanding schedule of a medical resident.
"I remember being in the intensive care unit, and he would bring by every day his team and he would make me discuss one of their cases," Jackson says. "I realize now that it was really a subtle message that my intellect was intact and that my physical injuries didn't limit me."
In time, it became clear that Jackson would be wheelchair-bound, but for her there was never any question of quitting; the only question was how to adapt to the new circumstances. At the time, she says, there were absolutely no role models at Hopkins who could show her how to conduct patient care and keep up the grueling schedule of a medical resident from a wheelchair.
But McKusick made it clear that he wouldn't allow the wheelchair to be an obstacle. So Jackson soldiered on, assuming it would all work out. "There was perhaps some naiveté, but that was probably a good thing," she says. "Nobody put constraints on me. There was no thought that I couldn't go back and do everything that I had before, so I just moved forward."
After her residency and a research fellowship in the lab of cancer geneticist Stephen Baylin at Hopkins, Jackson returned to her beloved Ohio State University. In 1983, she was hired for a position in the department of internal medicine.
Almost immediately, her enthusiasm and persuasiveness landed her a bigger job. A chance meeting with the department chair in the hospital cafeteria turned into a discussion of an article Jackson had been reading about the use of bone densitometry to determine the risk of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. Jackson argued that OSU should purchase a bone densitometer and take on a larger role in women's health research. The chair agreed and asked her to put together a proposal for a new center.
The board of trustees approved the proposal and Jackson was thrust into a leadership role at the Center for Women's Health, building it from the ground up. She led some of the first work on the role of weight-bearing exercise in building and maintaining bone mass and studied bisphosphonates as an osteoporosis treatment. She worked in physical therapy and conducted research on using biomechanical stress to prevent bone loss in early spinal cord injury. These days, she is exploring the process of joint degeneration that leads to osteoarthritis of the knee.
She attributes the diversity of her research topics to an innate curiosity and to a habit of reading widely. Rather than selecting only the articles that are in one's research area, she advises grazing across several fields. "It really allows you to think differently about the research questions that you have," she says.
A team player
In the mid-1990s, Jackson got involved in setting the research agenda for WHI, whose goals were well aligned with much of Jackson's earlier research. Particularly now, in her role as director of CCTS, which formed in 2006 with a $34 million Clinical and Translational Science Award from NIH, Jackson has become a convert to transdisciplinary science, applying multiple specialties and crossing disciplinary boundaries to answer complex questions.
Jackson cites an example: While planning a study of whether a low-fat diet could reduce the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women, experts in bone turnover -- who wouldn't ordinarily have been involved in planning a breast cancer study -- raised questions about the potential for low-fat diets to also lower estrogen levels to the point that it causes critical bone loss. Because experts from varied fields were included, Jackson says, the resulting research design took into account effects that wouldn't have been considered otherwise.
"You really have to be open to listening to people from areas that are outside your own discipline," Jackson says. "There are often ideas that catalyze a different line of inquiry because of that knowledge."
Her colleagues at WHI attest to her tenaciousness and interest in a range of experimental approaches and fields. Limacher notes that Jackson often distinguishes herself by her incredible breadth of knowledge and her fearlessness in tackling new challenges or unfamiliar territory with a "can-do, will-do approach."
Jackson takes her position as a role model to trainees and other scientists seriously, although more as a woman and mother of two than as a scientist with a disabilty. Jackson had her first child, a daughter who also has physical disabilities, as she was putting together her tenure package. In typically undaunted fashion, Jackson figured out how to help her daughter thrive. Jackson and her husband, also an OSU scientist, bought a riding stable that provides therapeutic riding lessons for children with disabilities.
"To really develop a successful scientific career, you need to embrace the time to think, to plan, to develop not just a research project but a total research program," she says. What's more, many young scientists have "type A" personalities and think they have to do it all, she says. She tells early-career faculty members that it's okay to make choices that strike a balance between professional and home life and not to over commit too early in their careers.
She is especially concerned about the attrition rate of physician-scientists -- men and women -- who come up against the academic tenure clock at a time when many are starting families. Many translational researchers wonder how they will be able to meet their own tough standards for excellence while taking time out for family, she says. "It becomes critical for us as mentors to talk about how to be flexible and how to help people create teams that support you and allow you to be successful."
Despite all her professional and personal commitments, Jackson still makes time to follow OSU football as closely as she follows her research studies. "Football is my passion," she says with evident pride. Those who know her never try to schedule any event on Saturdays during football season.
Once, she says, she applied for a grant that required a Saturday interview. There was a little box to check on the application form if extraordinary circumstances or religious observance prevented a Saturday interview. She looked at that box for several days before checking it. A couple of weeks later, she got a message from the program officer for the grant program. "Becky, OSU football is not a religion," the note said. Perhaps not, but as with all of her pursuits, she devotes herself to it as if it were.
Karyn Hede is a freelance writer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.