Research Notes

Lab Chat With Dr. Britta Will

Lab Chat With Dr. Britta Will

By Gary Goldenberg
Britta Will, Ph.D., studies hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells and their role in driving two age-related and largely incurable blood cancers: acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). A native of Germany, Dr. Will earned her doctorate in biology at the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg and came to the United States in 2005 for advanced training at Harvard. She has been a member of the Einstein faculty since 2013, where she is an assistant professor of medicine and of cell biology. In 2020, she was awarded the prestigious Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research.
Portrait of Britta Will, Ph.D. Britta Will, Ph.D., likes exploring “completely uncharted territory” in her research.

What attracted you to biomedical research?

I had a passion for nature at an early age, which led me to study biology. But for a long time, I didn’t know about research as a career option. I didn’t have any role models. My uncertainty made my parents quite nervous. While they were supportive of me, they thought, “Aside from teaching, what can you do, really, with a biology degree?”

Did that experience influence how you run your lab?

I believe so. My first goal is to make an impact scientifically, of course. But in addition, I feel honored to be in a position where I can help young scientists remain on their paths, especially when they experience difficulties.

How do you boost their spirits?

When they’re having a bad streak with their research, for example, I tell them, “Whatever you do today, just make sure to come back tomorrow.” If they’ve made it this far, they can work through the ups and downs. It’s in the nature of research to be wrong. You continue asking questions and pushing forward until things fall into place. That takes an open mind, courage, persistence, and time.

What led you to study blood cancers?

It was a natural trajectory, growing out of my interest in stem cells and my desire to address diseases for which we have few treatments or cures.

Dr. Will talks about why she went into stem-cell research.

What brought you to the United States, and why did you stay?

I wanted to see how research was done in another country. I came to appreciate how the system here supports young scientists and is completely open to novel ideas. I stayed because I had an opportunity to do a postdoc with Einstein’s Ulrich Steidl [an expert in stem-cell research, AML, and MDS]. He instilled in me the confidence that you can discover something new by pushing boundaries.

Is pushing boundaries what you hope to do with the funding you’ve received from the Sohn Prize—$600,000 over three years?

Yes, the Sohn Prize will allow me to explore completely uncharted territory: the role of iron in creating and sustaining the cancerous blood stem cells that lead to AML and MDS.

Have you read anything interesting lately?

The Power, a dystopian science fiction novel by Naomi Alderman. It’s my very first novel of this genre, and a deeply moving—and in parts disturbing—story about gender and power.

Do you have any hobbies?

Currently I like doing anything that is making our son, who is 2, happy. Also, my husband and I love to go on hikes

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