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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Anita Roberts

Anita B. Roberts – Noted Molecular Biologist

She played a key role in shedding light on the mysteries of the protein TGF-beta, including defining its role in wound and bone fracture healing, cancer, heartbeat regulation and other biological responses. She is one of the most cited scientists in the world

As a scientist, Anita Roberts was always aware of how the public viewed scientific research, and therefore how incumbent it is on researchers "to get their science right." She once said: "Research takes a long, long time. I know the public is always looking for a 'magic bullet'. But our own biology is incredibly complex.' As basic scientists, we're all driven by our excitement in finding answers. We hope it ends up as something that becomes therapy. But that doesn't happen unless you have a basic understanding of the process. And that's what my work is all about."

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Anita graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and received a doctoral degree in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin. She did postdoctoral work as a National Institutes of Health fellow at Wisconsin and Harvard Medical School before becoming staff chemist at Aerospace Research Applications Center in Bloomington, Indiana. She then taught chemistry at Indiana University.

She joined the National Cancer Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD) in 1976 and by 1990 rose to deputy chief of the Laboratory of Cell Regulation and Carcinogenesis, and then served as its acting chief, and later as its chief -- a position she held until 2004. She continued her research at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) until she died of gastric cancer in 2006.
In the early 1980s, she and her colleagues at the NCI began to experiment with the protein known as "Transforming Growth Factor Beta", (or more commonly referred to as TGF-beta).

Why She's Important: After conducting experiments that included isolating TGF-beta from bovine kidney tissue and comparing her results with samples of this protein taken from human blood platelets and placental tissue, Anita made groundbreaking findings that continue to aid physicians and medical researchers.

These discoveries included: that TGF-beta plays an important role in healing wounds as well as bone fractures. She also found that this protein plays a dual role of blocking and stimulating cancers (especially stimulating advanced cases of breast and lung cancer), autoimmune diseases, and helping to regulate heartbeat and the response of the eye to aging.

Education: Anita earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Oberlin College, and her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1968.

Other Achievements: She is rated the 49th most-cited scientist in the world and the third most-cited female scientist due to her groundbreaking contributions. Dr. Roberts was a former president of the Wound Healing Society, and in 2005, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her key awards and honors also include receiving the FASEB Excellence in Science Award, and the Komen Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction, both in 2005.

She herself was diagnosed with stage IV gastric cancer in March 2004. She earned a measure of fame in the cancer community for her blog which she wrote regularly to detail her daily challenges with the disease. This proved to be a source of information and inspiration to thousands of cancer patients and their families, especially coming from a noted scientist who had researched cancer during her career.

In Her Own Words: In commenting as a scientist how she felt when she was diagnosed with cancer, Anita candidly told the journal Cancer Research in 2006: "When I was first diagnosed, I was so angry about my research. I thought: 'What have I been doing for 25 years? Who cares what compound binds to what piece of DNA?' That lasted about a week. Then I realized that [through science] we now have drugs based on what we understand from our basic research."

She died of her cancer in 2006 at her home in Bethesda, Maryland. She was 66.