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E5: A Tribute to Daniela Gerhard

Items of significance to Dr. Daniela S. Gerhard, who spent nearly two decades developing and executing large-scale genomics research programs for NCI.

Credit: National Cancer Institute

Dr. Daniela S. Gerhard was a science administrator at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for over 19 years. For the cancer genomics research community, Daniela's passion for science and robust work ethic were legendary. But lesser known were Daniela’s devotion to building collaborations, compassion for colleagues and patients, and love for goulash. Colleagues and friends reflect on Daniela’s work and legacy at NCI.

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Additional Information

Interviewed on this episode are:

  • Dr. Anna D. Barker (Chief Strategy Officer, Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine)
  • Dr. Pamela C. Birriel
  • Dr. Stephen J. Chanock
  • Dr. Subhashini Jagu
  • Dr. Marco A. Marra (Director, Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at BC Cancer)
  • Dr. Janet S. Rader (Chair of OBGYN, Medical College of Wisconsin)
  • Dr. Louis M. Staudt
  • Dr. Robert Strausberg
  • Dr. Jean Claude Zenklusen

Music on this episode includes excerpts from the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Kimiko Ishizaka, and Má Vlast by Bedřich Smetana (www.musopen.org).

Episode Transcript

SONG: ["Aria"]

LOU STAUDT: In many ways, Daniela Gerhard was the heart and soul of the Center for Cancer Genomics. She was one of the most effective science administrators I have ever come across in my entire career.

PEGGY WANG: I'm Peggy Wang. And this is Personal Genomics from the National Cancer Institute.

PEGGY: Dr. Daniela Gerhard led large, team science genomics programs at NCI. And for over 19 years, she built quite a reputation. But how well did people really know her? Today, a look into the life of one of the most dedicated civil servants in cancer genomics research. Before NCI, Daniela had her research own lab at Washington University.

JANET RADER: I was starting my faculty position and was interested in carving out an area of research.

JANET: My name is Janet Rader.

PEGGY: Janet was an oncologist looking to start her research career.

JANET: I really wanted someone to teach me science, you know tell me the truth, head me in the right direction. She was my first person I approached.

SONG: ["Variatio 2 a 1 Clav."]

JANET: I remember arriving in her office. She was sitting in her desk, piled high with stacks of journal articles papers and gels. It was, it was, it was impressive. I have never seen a desk like that ever before or after. She graciously took me in to work on cervical cancer. I would go to all her lab meetings. So you know I would just watch her interact with students and the lab and technicians.  And she just was no nonsense. There was might be a little joke or a little laughing but it was mostly pretty serious, intense, mission based.

ROBERT STRAUSBERG: So I am Robert Strausberg. I am the former director of the Office of Cancer Genomics for the NCI.

ROBERT: I really liked that she was a good hard-nosed scientist. I had the opportunity to recruit for another senior scientist within the OCG and so we had advertised positions and one of the respondents was Daniela. I was very impressed. She had an excellent background in human genomics, she was at the human genome project really from the start. Of course the key thing then is, it truly is leadership. It's leaving your own personal laboratory. And when we talked I really got the sense that she understood the mission she would be taking on. She paid attention to details and that was a very important thing in our in our roles so going from big picture to details I thought Daniela spanned all that and I was just happy to have found her and welcomed her as a colleague

PEGGY: In 2002, Daniela joined NCI to oversee cancer genomics and translational science programs.

ANN BARKER: She was pretty intuitive about the importance of genomics to what would become medicine and how we deliver medicine today. You know you could see that all the way back, even before the Human Genome Project was finished.

PEGGY: This is Ann Barker.

ANN: Beginning in 2002, I became the Principal Deputy Director of the National Cancer Institute.

SONG: ["Variatio 2 a 1 Clav."]

ANN: I appointed Daniela head of the Office of Cancer Genomics. She really did understand the power of understanding the genome. Very few people will remember that Daniela was responsible for much of the early work at NCI. Daniela actually took on you know a job of really thinking about cancer genomics and how NCI could be positioned in that space. In terms of TCGA, in the early days she led she led the project.

PEGGY: TCGA is The Cancer Genome Atlas. It was a very large team science project. Imagine hundreds of scientists coming together to study twenty thousand patient samples.

ANN: We had a large team, a large NCI-NHGRI team that worked on the project together. She worked on everything from how we how we got the samples in the early days, to how we actually extracted the DNA. Nothing here was easy, everything was hard. And Daniela actually had to take on a number of what seemed to be should have been fairly trivial things in our mind you know, collecting the right samples. It turned out that those were all extremely hard problems.

PEGGY: Someone who knows just how much work these early, ambitious genomics programs took is Stephen Chanock.

STEPHEN CHANOCK: I was investigator in the Center for Cancer Research in the Pediatric Oncology Branch.

SONG: ["Variatio 20 a 2 Clav."]

STEPHEN: Planning and the early execution of the groundwork for TCGA, she was instrumental and did quite a bit of work. She was very rigorous and very set. She had a certain structure she wanted a certain way in the language. And it took us months to do this, she kept sending this back. For we need a new version of this, you need to rewrite this. I have in the ether hundreds and hundreds of emails of documents going back where we, it took version 36 to get it finalized. We had a good lively interchange in trying to get the language for both how we were going to do the study and then how we were going to share it.

PEGGY: Here is Subhashini Jagu, who was a program director working closely with Daniela.

SUBHASHINI JAGU: Specificity, accuracy, and clarity. So SAC is the acronym. This was one of the things we learned from her, all of us. She was always insisting us to be SAC.

PEGGY: Do you use that in your work today?

SUBHASHINI: I'm very thorough in reading documents. I would think two or three times. I pause and see how to best rephrase this or how to simplify this, to implement the philosophy Dr. Gerhard taught us. I don't review the documents quickly and send it back if someone asks my feedback, I spend quite a bit of time and provide my honest opinion.

JANET: You know if you wrote something, whether it was in a grant or a paper, always had a million comments. There's nothing worse for a learner to get something back with nothing on the piece of paper, you know. When I would get something back from her it would be covered with ink and I really appreciated it.

STEPHEN: She didn't miss things. If you had a conversation she remembered what was said. She was very attentive to detail. She had this capacity to sort of X out the rest of the world. And you would get her full undivided attention. She was not somebody that liked to multitask or try and say or do things that she didn't know about.

JANET: I think she's incredibly giving of her time.

PEGGY: What other adjectives would you use to describe her?

JANET: She's intense.

SONG: ["Variatio 26 a 2 Clav."]

PEGGY: Can you give me an example?

JANET: Just to get to the bottom of a problem, she's just unrelenting. Always questioning, always looking deeper, always wanting more.

MARCO MARRA: You know the depth of her questioning I found unusual. She really wanted to dig in there.

PEGGY: This is Marco Marra, a scientist working in one of Daniela's programs.

MARCO: I'm a professor of medical genetics.

MARCO: She would come to visit us uh quite frequently annually I think, to review the status of projects funded through her office. And we always knew that when we were going to have an interaction with Daniela that there would be penetrating questions that uh that would be challenging to answer. And I think it made our group better scientists. We were always beneficiaries. She was a very curious person and she was very interested in methodologies.

JC ZENKLUSEN: But she really wanted to know, what was the protocol that you used to extract the DNA and RNA, can I have that protocol. These type of things, which people never ask.

JC: My name is Jean Claude Zenklusen. For a while I work at the Office of Cancer Genomics with Daniela. I learned how to do program administration with her.

JC: She came to talk to us because we had done a large-scale project, characterization of a thousand low grade gliomas and glioblastomas. You normally don't get people visiting for, for a general information don't ask you for your protocols and to look at the facilities. I have always been, I'm a chemist and I have all the foibles of all chemists, you know precision and very obsessive. But it's the only way you can manage these large projects and she had the same thing. She was very meticulous about how the the projects would run and I think it's thanks to that that many of the projects that were started at OCG were successful.

ANN: We set up a project called TARGET, which was essentially TCGA for pediatric cancer and Daniela led that. And it's been an extraordinarily high value project for the development of new targets for pediatric cancer. And she was very, very effective in that role and we owe her a great deal for leading that project. I think it was in years to come it will change the way that we look at pediatric cancer in terms of developing new drugs. The other project that she led is a funny story.

SONG: ["Variatio 18 a 1 Clav. Canone alla Sexta"]

ANN:  I think it was 2008. The then director called me and said, we have a significant amount of money, do you have anything that you could do with that? And I said well yeah we'd like to come up with a program in chemical genomics to set up sort of a target discovery program. So, I had to write this description for this program, and I dunno, I had about 20 minutes. And Dr. Gerhart was on vacation in Germany. So I called her up and I said we're gonna undertake this project and I need you to lead it. And she said well I don't know if I can do that. And I said oh yeah you can do that. So long story very short, she came around. And when got back she saw how powerful the program could be and she took it and ran with it. That was the start of what’s called the CTD-Squared Network.

JC: The whole idea is to take large-scale genomic data generated by TARGET, TCGA, any large-scale genomic program that we run, and "functionalize" it basically. Start looking at those genes of interest and start looking at the biology in model animals and in model cells.

JC: The interesting thing is that the group of people that are in CTD-Squared are from very, very different backgrounds. The first call that we had with these groups, so Daniela and me we had the speakerphone on. And everybody kept talking about what they were going to be doing, their own interests. And Daniela and me we kept looking at each other, because this is a network. And at the end of the call we looked at each other and we hit our foreheads with the palm of our hand saying, oy, this is going to be so difficult! These people don't understand that they need to work together. But she said, well you know we'll bring them to the understanding. And we did. She was very good at gently telling people, yea yea I like everything you are doing but that's not what you are doing.

SONG: ["Variatio 9 a 1 Clav. Canone alla Terza"]

JC: She was really very good at putting networks and making groups of people work together. And I think that's one of the most important things that I learned from her. It's a different thing to do it in the scale of a lab with people that you hired and that you see every day, to a network of PIs that are well recognized in the area. And they have personalities you know. And you have to bring the personalities together and that requires doing. And Daniela was very good at that.

SUBHASHINI: This is what I learned. Being part of the program even though you have the power to establish and start these programs, you need those scientists backup too. Without their support, it is hard to run these programs. All the principal investigators work collaboratively in the pre-published environment. Like, they share the results ahead of the publications and they shared the reagents. It was a very collaborative network. She was very particular in using the word "network" and not the "consortium" because she wanted those interactions between the investigators.  And she's very particular in the way you call Cancer Target Discovery and Development Network as C-T-D-squared not as C-T-D-two to represent that amplifying effect in square.

MARCO: She really did bring people together and very often people with complementary interests and natural collaborations flowed from those relationships. So very, very productive and helpful and educational, altogether enriching. She made connections that we would otherwise not have made, ever would have made. And it was those connections that had a significant impact on our center.

STEPHEN: She demanded and expected a lot that people would meet deadlines and provide things. By god they would.

SONG: ["Variatio 23 a 2 Clav."]

STEPHEN: She was very good in getting some very very senior self-assured and somewhat independent minds to come together in a collaborative network.

PEGGY: How do you teach people to work together?

JC: You know it's it's very difficult to make people do what they don't want to do and so what you have to do is find a way that they understand that working together is in their best interest. Both her and me we had to use, from time to time, the okay you need to read your letter of award because what you say that you are not going to do is a requirement for your award. And both Daniela and me we seldomly use that. You know between the stick and the carrot you get people going together.

PEGGY: Here's CCG Director Lou Staudt.

LOU: You have to understand the science deeply and what you're trying to achieve, and you have to do so in a way that commands respect out of the scientists on the team that you're trying to lead. Daniela had that. You have to be able to convince people through the power of your personality to work together. So scientists don't naturally do that. They naturally want to work on their own make discoveries and report their own discoveries. Team science is quite different. And so Daniela did have a way of getting people to pull together in these in these team science projects, mostly because she showed everybody how deeply she cared about them with her uh persistence.

ROBERT: I tell you as director, I needed to play the role sometime of the enforcer. And I can do that, it's not my nature but I can definitely do that. Daniela could certainly do that. Daniela, I'm sure you heard, was a very direct person, I greatly appreciated that. She was always direct and I will say there was always a twinkle in the eye.

PEGGY: What do you mean by the twinkle in the eye, can you explain that?

ROBERT: Because I think uh Daniela could be very direct you know she would say exactly what was on her mind. But you could always see it was with a smile and everything she always put forward a friendly face so she had the talent I feel to really say what was on her mind.

LOU: It's a vigorous exchange of ideas. What I liked very much about interacting with Daniela, I like people who call me out and and take me to task on things that I say that that they don't agree with and so then we had a very good give and take and we would kid each other and it was all very, very enjoyable in a scientific, nerdy kind of way. It was a relationship I valued and one of the reasons I respected her.

ROBERT: I experienced you know the toughness of Daniela, too but that's okay because she's uh doing a great job. She was strong, a strong personality but she also was gentle I believe, I think. She had all these sides to her. I know that she cared very much about people. When she hears there's somebody in need and that maybe she could do something about it she would definitely be that person to try to help.

SONG: ["Variatio 7 a 1 ovvero 2 Clav. "]

ROBERT: I do remember distinctly she had just come to Bethesda and she had just moved into her apartment and really it was probably, should have been upon us to get a group get together and have a luncheon or something like that. Well actually, very quickly Daniela invited everybody over to her place. So she took the initiative that instead of waiting to be hosted as a new member of the team. She took the initiative: I'm gonna just host the team. We all went over to her apartment and there was a lovely luncheon I think. So she was very family oriented and I thought that was so nice of her actually. She really took the role of being a leader of the team right away in bringing the entire team and her together.

STEPHEN: She always talked about how she loved a good goulash—basically a European, Hungarian, Czech Slovak dish that’s based on a meat, whether it’s a beef of pork with paprika and sometimes potatoes. And she had her mother's and grandmother's recipe. She cooked three different goulashes. I went over I think it was on a pretty hot day and goulash can sometimes be very spicy I would say when we got to the really hot one, there wasn't enough water or air conditioning to cool us down. We had a good laugh about this I probably lost a pound or two sweating off goulash. But they were terrific.

PAMELA BIRRIEL: My name is Pamela Birriel, I started as a communications fellow for the office.

PAM: I always looked forward to International Women's Day. She always had a little cake from Balducci's that was always delicious. And I think she celebrated the fact that it's mostly women within the Office of Cancer Genomics. And I appreciated that she celebrated that. She honestly really cared and wanted to know about us. I think she started to ease more into us getting to know each other a little bit better. Staff meetings used to be very much like, what are you doing for your program, what are your tasks this week. And when I started, it was very much like oh how was your weekend, anything fun that you want to share with the group. She definitely knew about my personal life, like my own family going through anything and she was very receptive to listen and kinda offer her sympathies.

SUBHASHINI: I always used to run at five o'clock, she was worried that if I could catch the bus or not on time. So she used to text. If it gets too late or too dark in the evening. And even during our travels to the site visits. I always used to take the red-eye flight. I used to text her in the middle of the night, 1 am, 2 am, letting her know that I reached safely so that she doesn't have to keep worrying about me. She picked a nice book for Pranav, my son. And she said oh maybe Pranav will enjoy this. And the other CTD-Squared people who were with me, was like oh my god I never realized that you have a very special relationship.

STEPHEN: I always enjoyed talking about science, but we also had other things that we were interested in and we'd end up talking about. Particularly classical music. I had studied as a musician before going to medical school. And she loved particularly chamber music and piano music.

LOU: We both enjoyed classical music. And I found out because Daniela kept on turning up at some of the same concerts I was at. And she was particularly passionate about Slavic music from her origins. So I learned some of that from her.

STEPHEN: She was a very serious tennis player, and she had this tremendous love for tennis. She became very animated talking about Federer's forehand and Nadal's backhand and Steffi Graf, what they could or couldn't do. She was never one to, to interrupt or to be loud or gregarious. For instance, when we were at tennis she, unlike some of the people in the crowd who would be making a loud noise, she would just quietly say my god that was a great cross forehand, you know, great turning of the wrist.

JC: We traveled a lot of places all over the world and she was a lovely person to have you know dinner or a drink or have some social interaction because she was a very interesting person. She had had a very interesting life. She was very funny. I found her to be very funny, I have probably the same type of humor, you know kind of dry, sarcastic. Daniela was very you know business-like uh formal and so many people colored every interaction in that way and they missed the humor that was behind. Sometimes we were in staff meeting and she would say anything and I would laugh and then the rest of the people will look at me. And Daniela will go yeah you got it. Because we had the same type of cultural cues and educations, we understood each other a little better. It's the formality of our education and the informality of the American style sometimes makes difficult to communicate you know.

SONG: ["Variatio 25 a 2 Clav."]

PAM: She definitely had a reputation, from people that did not know her that knew that she was serious and stern to the point that I've had you know questions like oh, don't you have to let her know when you go to the restroom? It's like, no I don't have to let her know when I go to the restroom but that's what people thought, and that wasn't the case.

JANET: I just truly believe she just gets it because she's female. I mean she's, she's carrying a very critical, tenuous piece right? All these people have to coordinate and work together and be happy. You know talk about intense right you have some of the top people in the world each waiting for one person to finish one part and pass on to the next you know so there's I mean incredible organization and structure to get samples and data from one place to another. You know it it was quite a feat. Boy if she was a man, you know.

ROBERT: I think that's, I think that's a fair statement. I think that's actually a very fair statement. And it's still the case that a lot of times the way a man might be you know nobody would blink But that's why I say Daniela was just a good honest person. The reality is I think that she was doing her job very well. That was, that was her approach.

LOU: I mean i can get away with a lot of these same sort of things. I don't know what it is about our culture that that makes it that way. She would say, you know, hey guys we got to get this done. When is this going to get done? Are you going to do it? If you if you want to call that stern maybe it is. I just call it necessary.

PEGGY: Do you think if she had been a man, it would have even been it would have been such a big part of who she was?

PAM: Maybe not like just in terms of thinking that maybe she would have been taken more seriously you know what I mean without having to try so hard.  I think she got to where she was because of the way she was. I think she needed to be stern and serious and I think yea, she purposefully was like that to just make sure she was respected in her profession.

LOU: I think that's completely wise. Daniela had tremendous respect from all scientists. That is your first necessary ingredient to be a successful science administrator. You're going to lead scientists. You're going to lead people who are quite smart, typically quite independent, have ideas of their own and if they don't respect you, you won't be able to lead them.

PAM: Of course yes she was strict, she was serious, but she was still like wonderful.

SONG: ["Aria de Capo è Fine"]

PEGGY: In June of 2021, Daniela suddenly and very unexpectedly passed away.

LOU: This was a shocker and one that took us all a long time to get over.

JANET: Just unbelievable. I thought she'd be around forever curing cancer. She'd be someone I could call it and say, hey Daniela what do you think about this? And she would give you an answer you know. She wouldn't be shy.

MARCO: I will miss Daniela uh very much, we all will here at uh the Genome Center. And we think fondly of her. I just think its important that people understand that she was important to us.

STEPHEN: She certainly influenced all around her. There was there's no question you could see the signatures of a "Daniela" approach okay. I have only the highest of respect and admiration. When I think of Daniela, I think rigor, and direction and really specifically laying out each and every step in a collaborative network. Those were things that were real strengths of hers. Then I also think of her love of tennis and of her family and making goulash. I mean thats, when she served Gilles and I she had the biggest smile on her face.

JC: Without Daniela, TCGA would never have happened. End. Period. You know we have a lot of large-scale programs at NIH. Some are successful, some are not. But the ones that are not successful normally are not successful because they don't have a really committed leader at NIH. It is true all the programs, she treat them all equally, she loved them all equally, and she was committed to all of them equally. Every program that she started, every program that she entered was as important was as important as any of the others, she didn't have favorite children. Daniela was that type of person.

ROBERT: She didn't let anything worry her and she lived her life her way and and she did it the best way and I think she was very effective. I just think of her as a very good person and I'm proud of what she did.

PAM: That last week, she was in a great mood. The last one-on-one conversation that I had with her, she was just checking in with us. She was laughing and everything. It was apparent that it wasn't just a job. She did it because she genuinely loved it. I mean I don't know how somebody can dedicate so much time to something that they're not passionate about. And to her it just seemed to come easy. Yes, she was very busy. Yes, a lot was expected of her and I think it's just she just took a lot on and had a lot on her plate. But you do that and you do it happily because you're so passionate about it.

SUBHASHINI: The last message I received from her was checking on my mom how she was doing back home. She knows that my mom lives by herself in India, so she was like checking on me to see if my mom is doing ok. I mean I spent more than seven years in OCG. Definitely, we had that relationship.

LOU: She and I both are people that that uh like to move the ball down the field. We'd like to feel that the work that we did has made tangible progress towards making cancer a little bit less of a problem for people. In particular, she was very interested in childhood cancers. Some of the work that was done under her watch has led to successful clinical trials. And she was probably the first person at NCI to organize and pull off a team science effort in functional genomics.

LOU: There's definitely been a process to try to adapt for the loss of Daniela. It's kind of like taking the turbocharged engine out of a race car, I mean she really was so energetic and so much a driver of everything. Her legacy continues, her programs are continuing, each and every one of them.

ANN: I was always amazed going into her office because you know we all go to meetings, scientific meetings and you get the badges that you wear. Her whole office was papered in these badges that she collected over the years. She really loved science and she treasured being at meetings where science was discussed. Her love of science I think drove everything that she did. She was a fabulous program manager and she was wonderfully quirky but a real enjoyment to work with and to see what she accomplished over the years is important for all of us.

SONG: ["Má vlast - Vltava (The Moldau)"]

ANN: Daniela was a good person and she really did have I think at heart really wanting to do the best thing for patients. I think that she understood that research that we do has to be of the highest quality and has to be very important and cutting edge and stay ahead of the curve so that we can, we can accelerate progress against this horrific disease. That’s what I keep reminding people all the time. That’s why we're here. She gave her life to NCI. That's been her life since she left Wash U. There are very few people that you know ever gave more than Daniela.

PEGGY: Daniela Gerhard made many, many contributions to NCI over the span of 19 years. The programs she ran included, but were not limited to: NGT, HCMI, CTD-Squared, CGCI, TARGET, CGEMS, TCGA, CGAP, ICG, and MGC.

PEGGY: A big thank you to everyone who shared their stories and memories of Daniela, including: Dr. Anna D. Barker, Dr. Pamela C. Birriel, Dr. Stephen J. Chanock, Dr. Subhashini Jagu, Dr. Marco A. Marra, Dr. Janet S. Rader, Dr. Louis M. Staudt, Dr. Robert Strausberg, Dr. Jean Claude Zenklusen. And there were many others who helped me learn more about Daniela.

PEGGY: Music in this episode includes excerpts from Bach's Goldberg Variations, performed by Kimiko Ishizaka. The song you're hearing now is Smetana's Má Vlast, or "My Homeland," from musopen.org.

PEGGY: For more information about this and other episodes of Personal Genomics, visit our website at cancer.gov/personalgenomics. Have questions or comments about the podcast? Maybe you have a story? Email us at nciinfo@nih.gov. Be sure to mention the Personal Genomics Podcast. If you like the show and wanna hear more, please share it, or write us about it. Personal Genomics is produced by me, Peggy Wang, under contract and with help from Center for Cancer Genomics staff. We are a production of the US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute.

SUBASHINI: And she's very particular in the way you call Cancer Target Discovery and Development Network as CTD-Squared, not as CTD-Two.

JC: CTD-Squared

PAM: CTD-Squared

LOU: CTD-Squared

STEPHEN: CTD-Two, C-Two-D-Two, CTD-Two

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