When Jane Peterson wants to understand something, she dives right into the details. Her career has taken her beyond the surface of our everyday world, straight through to the cellular and molecular levels of the human body.
“The deeper you delve, the more complicated it gets,” she said. Although she was talking about genetics, the same could be said for her career and list of accomplishments.
Peterson holds a doctorate from the University of Colorado’s department of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and that’s just the start of it. She moved on to the department of human genetics at Yale University School of Medicine, then to the laboratory of biochemistry at the National Institutes of Health. She also got in at the beginning at an ambitious task — the Human Genome Project.
Surrounded by scientists
Peterson grew up in Hamilton, a very small town in western Montana.
“My entire family is somehow in science,” she said, referring to her father, a physician, and her elder brother, who passed on an interest in mammalogy.
“I trapped mice and did that kind of thing through high school, so I got into science pretty early,” Peterson said.
Her post-high school education started on a unique footing, as she spent her freshman year attending Beirut College in Lebanon while her parents were working as missionaries in Iran.
“It just seemed like a terrible opportunity to miss,” she said. “Beirut is a phenomenal place.”
When it came time to choose a graduate school, she saw what she wanted at CU.
“This new program at CU really attracted me, because they were bringing in people from all over, the best schools, and lots of new assistant professors on the cutting edge of cellular, molecular (and developmental) biology,” she said. Her decision to be part of the program propelled her into the field.
When talking of the Human Genome Project, Peterson betrays her love of tackling obstacles.
“It was a challenging project from the moment we started it, and it was a challenging project right up to ‘the end’ — in quotes because it’s not ever going to be really done,” she said.
“I learned so much about that, about how to think creatively about science and how to make science work and how exciting it can be when you can help in that creative process.”
Since then, Peterson has been involved in a variety of projects related to genetics, including the Knockout Mouse Project, the Human Microbiome Project and recently the Human Heredity and Health in Africa Project, which she remains quite passionate about.
“We’ve got to get science going in Africa. We’ve got to help Africans improve their lives as well, but science is a driver, it does a lot for your bottom line as a country,” she said.
Another goal of Peterson’s is to improve the diversity of scientists in the U.S., in both ethnicity and gender. She has pushed and implemented programs to promote women in multiple scientific fields.
“That’s always been a passion of mine. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have wonderful mentors,” she said.
Peterson has been living in Virginia for many years, but this April will be moving to Summit County to take over as president and chief executive officer of the Keystone Symposia. The symposia is a local nonprofit organization with a scientific focus; it convenes from 50 to 60 international research conferences every year on a variety of scientific and medical subjects. James W. Aiken, who has held the position for the last 11 years, is stepping down and will assist Peterson with the transition from April through June.
“As soon as I read the position, I immediately knew that I could do the things that needed to be done,” said Peterson.
One of the issues Peterson is ready to tackle is the matter of funding, which often prevents scientists from attending meetings like those put on by Keystone Symposia.
“It’s a challenge for scientists right now — to get their research funded, to get travel funded — but coming to a meeting is so important, because you oftentimes learn something to cause your research to go into a more productive area or direction,” she said. “You meet collaborators, your students meet new mentors. The face-to-face meeting is very critical. I want to be sure we promote that and provide the best face-to-face meetings that we can.”
In Summit County
While she’s ready to take on the challenges of her new job, Peterson said she’s also looking forward to enjoying what Summit County has to offer in winter and summer.
She’s looking forward to skiing on more than ice, for example, which she claims is all that’s available on the East Coast — so much of it that she waited to give her kids ski lessons until they could experience better snow. Come summer she’ll be out and about hiking, and maybe even getting back into backpacking or horseback riding.
“I love the Rocky Mountains and I’ve always wanted to come back,” she said.
Peterson is also interested in working to further connect the community with Keystone Symposia’s work.
“I would love to reach out more to Summit County, people who are interested in science. I hope we can have more of these lectures like we had the other night,” she sad, referring to an open community event last week featuring three scientists discussing Alzheimer’s disease. “There’s a lot of interesting science going on that I think people in general would be very interested in.”
“It was a challenging project (the Human Genome Project) from the moment we started it, and it was a challenging project right up to ‘the end’ — in quotes because it’s not ever going to be really done.”
Incoming president and chief executive officer of the Keystone Symposia