Chapter 01: Leaving the NIH for a New Research Opportunity
Drs. Balch and Grimm begin this chapter by sketching how they first met in the 1970s and the affinity of the immunology-focused research they were both conducting at that time. Dr. Grimm notes that she had first considered a position at MD Anderson in 1984, explaining the reasons why she turned it down, then explains why she accepted an offer for a joint appointment the Departments of Tumor Biology and of Surgical Oncology when Dr. Balch recruited her and her husband, Jack Roth, MD, in 1986 She explains how the research environment provided possibilities to positively develop her career through work on human tissue and collaborations with clinicians. She compares the working environments of the NIH and MD Anderson. She also comments on the fact that she was the only woman in her departments, and describes the freedom she felt to assert herself. Dr. Balch explains his commitment to furthering women’s careers.
The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Joining MD Anderson/Coming to Texas; Joining MD Anderson; Professional Path; Evolution of Career; Professional Values, Ethics, Purpose; The Researcher; Overview; Definitions, Explanations, Translations; Multi-Disciplinary Approaches; Growth and/or Change; MD Anderson Culture; Working Environment; Institutional Mission and Values; Experiences Related to Gender, Race, Ethnicity; Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Religion; Leadership; On Leadership
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History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History | Surgery
T. A. Rosolowski, PhDOkay, our counter is moving, and I just want to say today is August 6th, 2019. And I’m in the Faculty Center on the main campus of MD Anderson, in a conference room, in the—near the Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology. And we are today interviewing Dr. Elizabeth Grimm for the Division of Surgery Interview Project, which the leader on that is Dr. Charles Balch. So let me just quickly get you guyses’ voices for—oh, God, I can’t believe I said that (laughter)—for the—this is the conversational me—for the interview service. So good afternoon, Dr. Balch.
Charles Balch, MDHi, I’m Charles Balch, and I’m delighted to be here with Dr. Elizabeth Grimm.
T. A. Rosolowski, PhDAnd thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Grimm.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDOh, thank you so much, Tacey. I’m so happy to be here, also, and look forward to this.
T. A. Rosolowski, PhDIt’s exciting. And so just a couple of details. Dr. Grimm joined the faculty in 1986 as an Associate Professor with a joint appointment in the Departments of Tumor Biology and Surgical Oncology.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDCorrect.
T. A. Rosolowski, PhDAnd today, as we mentioned, her main appointment is in the Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology, and she is, of course, a full Professor and holds the Waun Ki Hong Distinguished Chair in Translational Oncology, and I’m sure we will cover many other things, as well. So I want to thank you, and I wasn’t sure where you wanted to start today, Dr. Balch.
Charles Balch, MDSo I was thinking I’ll start where I first met you. So when I was at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, on two occasions I chaired the site visit for Steve Rosenberg’s program at the National Cancer Institute. I remember … I think it was on the second one that I was introduced to one of the new members, Dr. Elizabeth Grimm, who had come to work on NK cells in melanoma. I think I wrote a very flowery assessment of what a benefit it was for you to join their team.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDThank you.
Charles Balch, MDAnd so that was the first time—
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDI didn’t know that. (laughs)
Charles Balch, MD—that I had met you.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDThank you. Yeah, thank you.
T. A. Rosolowski, PhDWhat was it that struck you so much about her ongoing work?
Charles Balch, MDWell, first of all, we were both in melanoma, and in immunology, and I was actually working on NK cells, too. So we had a lot of natural attraction because we were working in the same area, and I thought that the approach that she was taking in terms of understanding biology and the new technology, and working with Steve Rosenberg, was going to be—broaden their program and bring a lot of new information, which, in fact, is what happened.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDIt was wonderful. (clears throat) I enjoyed that very much, those years. I was [under Dr. Rosenberg] there four years, and then became [an independent] senior investigator [for two years], which is akin to tenure. So I had my own lab, but, of course, Steve Rosenberg had no room, which is why ultimately also Jack Roth [Division of Surgery interview] [and I left the NIF for MDACC].
Charles Balch, MDYes.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDBut [I left Dr. Rosenberg’s lab and] got a really good deal from Neurosurgery, [ ] and I inherited a lab in which the fellows, including Ray Sawaya [oral history interview; Division of Surgery interview], had been [a fellow before I took over].
Charles Balch, MDYes.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDSo that’s the only other place outside of Steve Rosenberg’s lab in surgery at National Cancer Institute that had research. That’s where I actually did a lot of the later things, because Steve couldn’t accommodate me, and —
Charles Balch, MDAnd then, as we’ve talked about with Liz’s husband, Dr. Jack Roth, is the two of them were my first recruits when I became the Head of the Division of Surgery and Chair of what was then General Surgery, and became the Department of Surgical Oncology. And it was a very important recruitment for both of us, because it made a statement that we were going to build academic research programs and add NIH-funded laboratory research and clinical trials, both of which were really not present at the time. And this was a way of recruiting people to bring that presence in, and through them to develop more programs and grow the programs, which, in fact, did happen, but both Liz and Jack coming here were the beginning of the growth of the academic research programs in the entire Division of Surgery.
T. A. Rosolowski, PhDWhat were the opportunities you saw here? I mean, we—I think Dr. Roth sketched some of the pros and cons for both of you coming to Texas, so however you want to treat that, but the opportunities certainly were key.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDYeah, well, it grew on me, because I had been here --and this, I’m always trying to think of the hotel name—to an immunology conference at the Shamrock Hotel. Margaret Kripke [oral history interview] and Josh Fidler [oral history interview] had just arrived, and at that time Margaret Kripke offered me to come back and interview for a job. And I don’t know if you knew this—
Charles Balch, MDYeah.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhD—but I did. I came back, interviewed for a job, and I decided it wasn’t for me.
T. A. Rosolowski, PhDWhat year was that?
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDThat was probably ’84.
Charles Balch, MDYeah, that would have been 1984.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDYeah, and it was, for several reasons—and this is how we get to Surgical Oncology. The department she was chairing, a new department --and associated in the same building, was off-campus, [Dr. Kripke’s] husband, Josh Fidler-- they were focused on mouse work. I had been in surgery departments, or worked with surgeons [and human tissue], from the beginning. Don Morton was first, and I worked for him before graduate school, as a technician. And during grad school I did a little mouse work, but it was all focused on human cancer tissues, which—I learned basic immunology, which I needed, a very wonderful time when lots of things were happening in transplant immunology. But then going to work with Steve Rosenberg, who’s another surgeon, and all of my work—this goal I had—and Charles was aware of it, I’m sure, because of our overlapping papers; I mean, of course I knew your papers, and Arabella Tilden’s papers—
Charles Balch, MDYes.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhD—yeah—You know, to try to figure out —to answer the question how is this that we can, for the most part, figure out ways to kill cancers, human cancers in test tubes, and cancers in mice. But it doesn’t happen in humans with immunotherapy. That’s still being—I’m trying to (laughs) unravel. But that question was really what I was burning to do, and I was approaching it in Steve Rosenberg’s lab. So when I came here for [Dr. Kripke’s] immunology conference, and had the interviews, subsequently probably a month or two later, I realized there was no human tissue, and the surgeons were somewhere else, and how was I going to do this kind of work? I couldn’t do the work at those departments the way they were configured, and so I just wasn’t going to consider it. But then Charles, unbeknownst to me at first, was communicating with Jack. (laughs) We were very busy. We had kids and crazy stuff going on, and I was just very happy in Bethesda. It’s a beautiful place to live. And Jack kept saying, “Well, you know, I’m getting this offer from Charles Balch to come to Houston.” I said, “I’ve been to Houston! No, no!” (laughs) Then he came back later and said, “Well, you could be part of the Surgical Oncology Department, and you could do this, and you could do that.” I said, “Well, let me look at it.” That’s what turned the tide, was when Charles came here, I knew I could get associated with a department that had availability for human tissues for clinicians, working with clinicians --which my lab had a lot of people from your fellowship, by the way, and Jack’s-- and then I got—
Charles Balch, MDYes.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhD—[other fellows], of course. But it just—it was that opportunity. It was when Charles came, and he made this change, and there was one [basic science] department on the north campus that was world-renowned, that was involved with recruiting Margaret and Josh, and that was Tumor Biology, Garth Nicholson’s department. And so after much thinking, and being a PhD, I thought it best for my academic reputation and everything I should be in a basic science department. And I think that worked well, you know. We collaborated. I was thinking Neal Pellis and—
Charles Balch, MDYes, Kyogo Itoh.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhD—and Kyogo, who I’ve seen in Japan several times, and he’s come here several times, and we keep in touch. You know, he’s still working, last time I saw him.
Charles Balch, MDSo this was another connection, is Arabella Tilden, Kyogo Itoh, and Toru Abo were the—
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDOh, Toru, yes.
Charles Balch, MD—immunologists in my lab at UAB, where I worked with Dr. Max Cooper, and we were knocking things out of the park, publishing in the Journal of Immunology, the Journal of Experimental Medicine. A lot of our publications were exactly in line with Steve Rosenberg and Elizabeth Grimm at the same time. And, in fact, when we …Kyogo Itoh came here to work in my laboratory, and we actually did the first TIL-cell therapy, patterned after Steve Rosenberg’s protocol. So this was yet another reason that the recruitment was a joint recruitment, both for Jack Roth coming as the first Chair of the Department of Thoracic Surgical Oncology, but Liz Grimm as being a bona fide, really senior investigator, doing cutting-edge research in the area of human immunology.
T. A. Rosolowski, PhDWhat was the environment that you stepped into? Where you were thinking about research, and research design, and collaboration, was it in line with the context you found here?
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDPretty much. I knew it would be different from the NCI. As you know, we didn’t have to write grants (laughs) at NCI. It’s one of the reasons I wasn’t so eager to move. But also at the NCI they’re employees for life there, and so I inherited all these FTEs, and that was great, six FTEs. If I can get six FTEs at MD Anderson I’ll be golden, but, of course, that doesn’t exist. But the opportunity to grow was here, and so I thought, well, if I don’t do well then I’ll contract, and so will the other people if they don’t do well. If I do well, I can expand because they contract. I mean, that was in my mind. I didn’t think the government job was for me for the long term anyway because of that. So when I got here, it was small, and I think everyone knew everyone. (laughs) In the halls, we’d walk up and down, and it was just the hospital building. The clinic part was being built, but there was none of the South Campus, other than the Smith Building. And so there are several things I can comment on. First of all, we knew everyone, but sometimes we knew more about them (laughs) which we didn’t need to. And it took an environment in which … We were assertive. Everybody was speaking up and doing things directly, and I felt empowered. I felt like I could speak … I was, for a long time, the only woman in my department, the only faculty, woman faculty, and for many of the programs in graduate school. I was in the MD PhD program, on their faculty, and worked with, actually, Mike Davies’ dad, Peter Davies, MD PhD [as I enrolled an MD PhD student who joined me] right away. There were very few women in any of those things, and I just felt like this is great, they all want me to join. Of course, pretty soon I realized I was stretching too thin. (laughs) And there were a few other people around that I did meet—Liz Travis [oral history interview], of course, and Margaret Kripke [ ] and we were all friends, we all did things together, but I did have the feeling about being the only woman [in my immediate environment], and issues with that, and I think it was advantageous from my perspective. I mean, I really think it was great, but—
T. A. Rosolowski, PhDHow so?
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDBecause I could speak up, and I did, and I had—I mentored … Lots of guys came to my lab. I didn’t feel that it was any different for me, but then this whole women’s movement started making me realize it’s not that for everyone. So I mentored a lot of women, even women surgeons who came to my lab, (laughs) and many of them are still here in Houston. I know Emily Robinson was in your time—
Charles Balch, MDYes.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhD—timeline, but before then you had a woman faculty, Eva Sing—
Charles Balch, MDEva Singletary.
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhD—Singletary. But that was probably the only one [that’s true?]—
Charles Balch, MDYeah, and let me add: I’ve always championed women in medicine, especially in surgery, partly driven by the fact that my wife was driven out of Georgetown Medical School because she was a woman. That was clear that—
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDCorrect.
Charles Balch, MD—it was a gender bias. And so hiring Liz was—had a double value to me of being a woman faculty member, the first research woman faculty in the Department of Surgery. At the same time, I hired Eva Singletary, who was the first woman to come on to the faculty in surgery in its fifty years, so—or forty years at that time. So this was part of another agenda of beginning to bring women into faculty positions, and to promote their careers as yet another essential part of the social changes within—
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDMm-hmm, exactly, exactly.
Charles Balch, MD—MD Anderson, which I think we can all report is really doing well, and the women have thrived, provided leadership. Margaret Kripke, of course, became the Executive Vice President after me, so... But this was part of the agenda, as well, and—
Elizabeth E. Grimm, PhDYeah. Yeah, no, it was wonderful, so I want to make a note, because I don’t know (overlapping dialogue; inaudible) before he did this.
Grimm, Elizabeth A. PhD; Balch, Charles M. MD; and Rosolowski, Tacey A. PhD, "Chapter 01: Leaving the NIH for a New Research Opportunity" (2019). History of Surgery - Interview Chapters. 34.
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