Dr. Kristiina Vuori was recently named the first woman president of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, making her one of only a few female presidents of major research institutions anywhere in the country. But that distinction is the last thing she wants to be known for.
Vuori would rather not recognize any gender differences. She is a scientist, and so she values results: Professional achievement should be measured by the contributions a person has made to her field, and gender has no influence on that.
“She’s not all girl-power, she’s even further evolved than that,” said Robin Richardson, a drug discovery researcher who works for Vuori. “I think she’s never thought that the fact that she’s a woman is anything worth considering.”
Vuori is instead known by scientists from across the world for her research on ways to prevent cancer’s spread. Her colleagues know her for her deep scientific knowledge, unflappable nature and tireless work ethic, all of which they say make her the perfect choice for the president role. And Sanford-Burnham’s employees and board members already know her for her leadership of Sanford-Burnham’s Cancer Center, a program within the institute that focuses on cancer-specific research.
Clearly Vuori is well known. But she would rather the recognition fall on the institution she works for, which has grown since its establishment in 1976 to more than 1,100 employees and has added two additional campuses in Santa Barbara and Orlando in the last four years.
The research institute’s growth is partly responsible for Vuori’s promotion. The expansion led it to split the president and chief executive officer roles previously held by Dr. John Reed, Vuori said.
Reed will remain as CEO, but will increasingly shift his focus to external fundraising and business development while Vuori will take charge of the institute’s scientific and non-scientific affairs, including managing the institute’s finances, allocating its funding and directing where it focuses its research.
Reed’s new external focus will give him more time to solicit philanthropic donations as competition for federal grants grows fiercer. Concurrent with Vuori’s promotion, San Diego philanthropist Pauline Foster made a “substantial gift” to Sanford-Burnham to endow the Pauline and Stanley Foster Presidential Chair, said Joshua Baxt, Sanford-Burnham’s spokesman.
Vuori exudes control and capability in person. Her desk is spotless, her earrings match her shirt and she speaks with a calm, authoritative tone that inspires respect, and some intimidation.
Almost every scientist interviewed about Vuori said something similar to, “Don’t write anything that will get me in trouble.” But also said they had never seen her yell.
Because Vuori’s research area has such a high failure rate, her steadiness is especially admirable, Richardson said.
“She does not get frustrated,” Richardson said. “She isn’t emotional at all about her work.”
“In science there are a lot of strong personalities, and people can be manic and crazy,” said Amy Howes, one of Vuori’s postdocs. “But you always know what you’ll get when you talk to her. She has an incredibly even-keeled personality.”
Vuori’s intelligence and scientific gift makes the board of trustees’ choice of her for president a “very clever move,” said Phil Baran, a chemist at the Scripps Research Institute. Baran collaborated with Vuori on recently published work exploring a molecule found in sea sponges that reduces cancer cells’ movement, which could be used to restrict the spread of cancer.
But Vuori’s steady character and dedication to her work don’t make her dull.
Even a brief meeting with her reveals a sarcastic sense of humor. When describing why she chose to begin her independent research career at Sanford-Burnham, where she was already working as a postdoctoral fellow, she said the reason was “laziness, because I could move a shorter distance.”
“I’m kidding,” she added quickly. “I was very happy and fortunate to have the opportunity to stay here.”
Although Vuori grew up in Finland running track, skiing, snowboarding and playing tennis, and played on the Finnish women’s national teams in basketball and bandy, a Finnish game similar to hockey, she also used her homeland’s 17 hours of summer daylight for intellectual pursuits.
“Even at midnight you could read a book outside,” she said.
She always liked science. When she was 8 years old, Vuori built a telescope to observe an eclipse.
“I built a filter for it without understanding that sunlight would burn the filter,” she said. “When I looked through it, sunlight came in and the filter actually magnified it, so I burnt my retina.”
Because both of her parents were doctors, Vuori said she went to medical school somewhat by default — although she seriously considered becoming a professional tennis player.
She earned her M.D. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Oulu in Finland, and then came to Sanford-Burnham in 1992, where she quickly began earning positions of leadership. She was “spectacular” at her own research as a postdoctoral fellow and became a leader among the other postdocs, said her adviser, Dr. Erkki Ruoslahti, who was the president of Sanford-Burnham at that time.
During Ruoslahti’s sabbatical in 1995, Vuori joked that she delivered so many administrative messages for him that she became the acting president of Burnham.
“We’d discuss so much science on overseas phone calls, and then he’d say tell someone this or that thing,” she said.
While many scientists bounce between multiple universities and research institutions during their career, and very few remain in the same place where they worked as postdocs, Vuori has never left Sanford-Burnham.
She said she stays because the institute is so dynamic.
“Large universities are typically more stagnant, so people may feel the need to move more,” she said. “This place has changed so many times while I’ve been here that I can keep gaining new experiences even if I’m in the same place.”
Something else has changed since Vuori arrived at Sanford-Burnham: she gave birth to her son, who is now 11. While Vuori said she thinks women scientists may be less likely to take on leadership roles because the additional work can take time away from their families, she thinks having time for her new job and her family “is completely doable.”
But part of making it doable requires Vuori to sleep four or five hours a night –usually from midnight to 4 or 5 a.m.
“When my son goes to sleep at night, the second part of my day starts,” she said.
Even before she was appointed president, her job as the director of the cancer center required that she spend much of her time on administrative work. The cancer center is one of seven “basic cancer centers” designated by the National Cancer Institute, meaning it is focused only on research and does not provide any direct treatment for cancer patients. Vuori recently helped the center earn the top rating from NCI.
“She rocked it,” Richardson said. “Because she proved herself to be so capable, the board really wanted her to be president.”
While Sanford-Burnham was originally established to study cancer, it has expanded to stem cell and drug discovery research for a variety of diseases, including diabetes, obesity and infectious diseases that could be spread by bioterrorism.
It has collected significant amounts of funding in recent years, including a $98 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2008 to establish a center that tests millions of chemical compounds to find potential new medicines and a $50 million pledge from philanthropist T. Denny Sanford this year, which resulted in a name change to Sanford-Burnham. Today Sanford-Burnham operates on a $154 million annual budget and is one of the top four earners of NIH grant funding in the country.
Vuori said the vision for Sanford-Burnham’s future is for its scientists to continue their work on detecting and treating diseases, while also paying greater attention to how this work benefits their patients — a place where her M.D. degree is useful. She plans to do this both by collaborating with pharmaceuticals and biotechs on developing medicine and by encouraging her scientists to understand not just their research results, but also how basic science can positively impact diseases and their treatments.
“We want to enable our scientists to think and move beyond the test tube,” she said.
Having this vision will help guide Vuori through her presidency at Sanford-Burnham, Ruoslahti said.
“The important thing for being both a scientist and an administrator is to be able to see what is going to be important for the future of the institute and for science overall,” he said. “She has what it takes to see what is important and to see where the institute is going.”
Contact Claire Trageser directly at email@example.com.