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July 2006 Issue

Karen Knudsen, PhD
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Scientist Has Own 'Formula' for Today's Research Dilemma

Published July 2006

UC scientist Karen Knudsen, PhD, has her own formula for keeping her mind clear while working nights on what seem like endless grant applications to the National Cancer Institute.

The adventures of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Jeeves “provide the kind of levity you need when you’re bogged down writing a five-year, very serious plan. When you hit those road blocks, refreshing your mind with comedy helps keep you from becoming an angry individual,” Knudsen says.

This Wodehouse fan—Jane Austen, too—is a high-profile prostate cancer researcher as well as a wife and mother of two.

An associate professor in the cell biology department and former director of the cell and cancer biology graduate program, she’s also the winner of this year’s Young Investigator Award from the Society for Basic Urologic Research, presented to an up-and-coming “under 40” who has made significant contributions to the field.

She’s also an associate editor for the leading cancer journal Cancer Research, and she sits on the editorial boards of several other major cancer journals.

For the Love of Science

Science has always been a big part of the life of this self-confessed “Army brat and nomad.”


“There was no question,” Knudsen says. “That’s what I wanted to do. I never really considered anything else.”

What draws her first, she says, is “the puzzle, and then the satisfaction of discovery and learning.


“I always tell my graduate students to expect gullies in their research,” she explains. “You go for long periods when things won’t work or don’t make sense, and that will frustrate you. But if you become emotionally brought down by it, you’ll never overcome it.


That’s really where you must dig in your heels and persevere.

“When things don’t make sense, that’s really when a person’s mettle shows. You have to stay in there, think outside the box, and find new ways to approach the problem.”


The process can get “a little bit depressing,” she adds, “but the incentive to keep going is the high that comes with figuring it all out.

“I can subsist on that high for long periods that get me over the more difficult times. That’s the satisfaction in studying something like prostate cancer, which is such an important disease. I love science, but I’m not sure I could study science for science’s sake. I couldn’t be as committed if I went into my lab and didn’t think that the things we do could ultimately have a positive impact on someone. That’s necessary for me.

“The reason I chose prostate cancer,” Knudsen explains, “is that it’s such a unique tumor type. It’s treated very differently and acts very differently than any other kind of tumor. And that’s what draws me to it. There’s a specific puzzle about prostate cancer that’s captivating.”

Knudsen actually got into prostate cancer research thanks to former UC faculty member Webster Cavenee, PhD, now director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and an authority on pediatric tumors and adult brain tumors.

As a grad student at UCSD Knudsen had worked on pathways that regulate cell growth in yeast. 


“At that time the mechanics of how cells proliferate were being understood,” she recalls, “and I was part of that. But I wanted to apply my work to mammalian systems or to humans, and what you apply it to, of course, is cancer, because cancer is a disease of uncontrolled growth.”

Moving on to work for Cavenee in the late 1990s, she found her boss eager to start a prostate cancer research group to help meet the needs of a growing prostate-prone population.

Her professional problems, Knudsen says, are those faced today by all scientists —cutbacks in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding.

”We’re all spending so much more time writing grant applications, it’s becoming difficult to allocate as much time in the lab as we used to,” she says. “The National Cancer Institute, which my grants come from, is only funding about 10 percent of applications, and even those funded are cut 30 percent. This really is a very challenging time.”


Part of the solution, Knudsen says, is for scientists to do a more effective job communicating what they do to the public.


”Overall scientists across the country are not projecting what the output is. Major strides, especially in cancer research, that have come out in the last 10 years haven’t been translated well enough to the public. I also don’t think the general public understands the impact of NIH budget cuts on university structure and function,” she says.

Bringing Research to the Bedside

Her goal as a scientist, Knudsen says, besides raising two potential new researchers in her sons —immunologist-to-be Dylan, 7, and Liam, 2 —and sharing life’s load with UC cancer biologist husband Erik Knudsen, PhD, “is to see that some of the things we do make it to the bedside.

“I’d like to at least contribute to something that benefits patients,” she says. “If I didn’t believe that’s why I’m walking into this building every day, I wouldn’t do it. I think we have as good a chance as any of succeeding.”

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