Meet a Member
José F. Cordero, Teratology Society Past President
José F. Cordero, MD, MPH, FAAP, Patel Distinguished Professor of Public Health, Chair, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, College of Public Health, University of Georgia
Dr. José F. Cordero is the Patel Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Chair, of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia. He joined UGA on August 2015. He served for 27 years in the US Public Health Service at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). During his years at CDC he was appointed Assistant Surgeon General of the Public Health Service and held positions focused on improving the health of mothers, children and adults in programs such as, immunizations, birth defects and disabilities. In 1994, he was appointed Deputy Director of the National Immunization Program and in 2001 he was selected as the founding Director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, the position that he held until his retirement from CDC.
He served as Dean of the School of Public Health in the University of Puerto Rico from 2006-2015. A former President of Teratology Society, he is Co-Principal investigator of the Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT) a Superfund Research Program that examines environmental risks for preterm births, and CRECE (Center for Research on Early Childhood Exposure and Development in Puerto Rico) that examines prenatal exposures and their impact on neurodevelopment in the first five years of life. Dr. Cordero serves as advisor of the Americas Dengue Board and is member of the International Data Monitoring Committee for the Sanofi Pasteur Dengue Vaccine. He is the Principal Investigator of the Puerto Rico Brain Trust for Tropical Diseases Research and Prevention, a group that seeks to facilitate and speed up the development of rapid tests, vaccines, and prevention strategies for diseases like Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya and others. He also serves as National Trustee of the March of Dimes, a foundation with a mission of helping mothers have healthy pregnancies and to fund research on the problems that threaten the health of babies. He is now engaged on the issue of Zika in pregnancy in Puerto Rico.
Melissa Tassinari, PhD, DABT
Like many people, my work career did not follow a carefully planned path. Rather it has been a series of unexpected turns each of which provided a richness to what could be described as a transdisciplinary career. I am a developmental and reproductive toxicologist that has had opportunities to work in academia, industry and government. Each phase of my career offered experiences that enabled me to bridge the spheres of nonclinical, clinical and regulatory science. The Teratology Society and the diversity of its membership, all focused on the same mission, helped me all along this path. As I had opportunities for personal and professional growth come along, I often called on the network of colleagues and friends to talk through the current ‘challenge’. There are also many leadership opportunities that I took part in the workings of the Society, as a student and then as a member. I had the chance to serve on Society committees and Council for many years. In 2005-2006 I was President of the Society.
Graduate school was The Medical College of Wisconsin under the mentorship of Dr. Sally Long, a former Secretary of the Teratology Society and Dr. Stan Kaplan, also a Teratology Society member. I was in the first class of student members of the Society. Sally was a mentor beyond the laboratory as I arrived to begin my graduate work as she was returning from maternity leave. I finished my thesis while she was on her second maternity leave. In between those leaves, I watched and learned as she juggled a two career family life, a full teaching load at the medical school and several graduate students with grace and humor. I took those lessons with me through my post-doc at Harvard School of Dental Medicine and Boston Children’s Hospital and in the first part of my career in academic research as our 3 children were born and family life took on an increasingly important part of life’s balance.
I loved teaching and did it both in undergraduate and graduate settings for 12 years. Students keep you on your toes. I found academic research hard, grant proposals were not my strength, but the collaborations in the labs were rewarding. The experiences I had served me well in the next phase of my career that began with a phone call.
That call led to an opportunity to set up and manage a new DART laboratory at Pfizer in Groton Ct. The chance to apply my experience in a different setting was a great opportunity but this involved uprooting my family, and stepping into industry without having any experience in regulatory science. I am forever grateful to a husband who was willing to take on a considerable commute because of the move. It was a steep learning curve initially, but I found another great setting to work. I eventually moved from the lab to the larger sphere of management in toxicology and then to the sphere of regulatory policy.
Over the years there were points that my daily work pulled me further away from my real scientific passion and those were the times that were the most stressful. They often coincided with the challenges of being a working parent. There are times when it can feel like an either/or set of choices, but it doesn’t have to be. It is in those times that one can step back and re-think how to achieve balance. The friendships and networks I have in the Teratology Society were invaluable to provide perspective and /or commiseration.
After 18 years in industry my work career took another turn when I decided to take an early retirement and join the Division of Pediatric and Maternal Health at the FDA. In many ways, this was a ‘coming home’ to the scientific area that I love and a third way to experience the science of teratology, through the lens of Public Health. For the past 7 years I have used my collective experiences to improve the safety of medicines for pregnant women, breastfeeding women and children.
My advice to anyone starting out is to find your center. Understand that this center can and will shift over time as life happens. For me, understanding what I loved to do and keeping that a central part of my work experiences meant seeking roles that allowed me to stand at the center of overlapping spheres of nonclinical, clinical and regulatory science.
The more important center however is the one that allows you to balance your passion(s), your abilities, and your personal life and well-being. Find your center, stay balanced, stay curious, do not neglect your non-science life, and always stay open to possibilities.
Barbara Abbott, Teratology Society Councilor
My Career Story by Barbara D. Abbott, PhD
This brief story recalls my “travels” through a career in science, and summarizes some of the highlights of that journey. There is also a link to set of slides with illustrations and more details for some of the story. I think there are three themes that run throughout my career that should be apparent from this “biography”: 1) accumulate amazing mentors, 2) recognize the role of chance in shaping your experience, and 3) enrich your life with the joy that comes from the exuberant practice of your craft.
THE BEGINNING: I think I always had an interest in science, and I definitely benefitted from the boost in Scientific Education in High School that accompanied our Country’s response to the launch of the satellite Sputnik into low Earth orbit by Russia (yes, I am that old). I enrolled in the Pre-veterinary program of the School of Agriculture at North Carolina State College (NCSU) in 1962. At that time North Carolina did not have their own Veterinary school, and those interested in that career would go to NCSU for 2 years and then hope to be one of the very few selected to complete their training at the University of Georgia or Oklahoma State University. In the slides, you can see that very few women were admitted to NCSU in 1961 (total enrollment was 6944 men and 173 women). The College had no dormitory for women (you can read on the slide the glowing description of the advantages dormitory housing offered to male students) and female students lived in rented rooms off campus. I was very pleased to participate in an Undergraduate Research Program in the Zoology Department with Dr.John A Santolucito, (more about him later), where I learned a bit about rat reproduction, histology and the routines of a research lab. It became apparent that the odds of being selected to continue in a Veterinary program were not good (in an Agricultural College the focus was on large animal practice, and subtle and not so subtle hints were given that women were not suited for this work). I changed majors and soon after I met and married my husband and we moved to Chicago and began a family (a few pictures on the slide).
FAMILY, WORK, GRADUATE SCHOOL: I enjoyed being a mother and wife very much, but soon the children were in school all day and I began exploring opportunities to work in a scientific career. I applied for a position as a laboratory technician at GD Searle, a pharmaceutical company with a research facility near our home. I am fairly certain that the job offer was strongly influenced by a letter of recommendation from Dr. Santolucito (NCSU). It was very nice of him to write this letter and I was a bit surprised that he remembered me from so long ago (I am grateful to him even to this day). At GD Searle (you can find more about the company on the slides), I worked with the Virology Group, learning cell culture techniques and soon moved to the Teratology Group where I worked for Dean Rodwell. I was trained in classic Teratology techniques and the requirements of Segment II testing. Dean was a wonderful mentor and encouraged me to return to complete my studies (thank you, Dean, I am forever grateful). I enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University, a very progressive institution at the time as they offered full credit degree coursework in the evenings to working adults. The timing was perfect, as ~12 years had passed since leaving NCSU and any longer and I would not have been able to transfer the credits toward my BS. After completion of my BS in Biology and Chemistry, I was thrilled to be accepted into the Curriculum in Toxicology at NCSU, where I earned my MS and PhD degrees in Toxicology. Daniel Grosch was my mentor along with other esteemed Professors at NCSU and UNC (details on the slides). My Thesis work involved the study of developmental defects of a parthenogenetic Braconid parasitic wasp exposed to volatile agents as it underwent larval development and metamorphogenesis. This tiny organism is about the size of a stunted fruit fly (see the slide), but was never-the-less a good model for developmental studies.
POSTDOCTORAL PERIOD: Once again I need to thank a great mentor for being willing to take a chance and give me an opportunity. Dr. Robert M Pratt, of the Laboratory of Reproductive & Developmental Toxicology at NIEHS, agreed to take me into his program as a Post-Doctoral Fellow. Even though I had a Thesis describing insect responses to a toxicant, he thought I could contribute to the studies of cleft palate and I was thrilled at the chance to work at this prestigious institute. (Note: Dr. Pratt introduced me to the Teratology Society and I attended my first meeting as a Student member at Callaway Gardens, Georgia, with his group in 1985). Our studies explored the mechanisms of cleft palate induction by a variety of teratogens and I acquired skills in morphological, cellular, and molecular level in vivo and in vitro studies using the rodent model. We also studied human palatal tissues in the organ culture model. Very soon after joining the lab, I began collaborating with Dr. Linda Birnbaum, who was at the National Toxicology Program at that time. We examined the mode of action of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) for induction of kidney and palate defects in mice. I was at NIEHS for 5 years and these were very productive years.
PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR: In 1990, I interviewed with Dr. Robert Kavlock for a Principal investigator position in the Developmental Toxicology Division at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I joined the Division in April of 1990 and was grateful for the opportunity to work with this highly regarded research group. (Note: in June of 1990, I accompanied the EPA group to the Teratology meeting in Victoria, British Columbia, a fine meeting and memorable location). At EPA, I was encouraged to continue the cleft palate research and over several years the research expanded to include limb bud, whole embryo culture, and studies of a variety of chemicals of interest to the Agency. A major initiative at that time and for some years afterward was the development of Biologically-Based Dose-Response Models and I was very interested in this project. More recently, I worked on defining the mode-of-action for a family of perfluorinated compounds which act through the peroxisome proliferator activator receptors (PPAR-alpha). Over the 25 years that I have been at EPA, many new technological advances were incorporated into our studies, including knockout mice, in situ hybridization, PCR, gene arrays, laser capture microdissection, confocal microscopy, and we are currently developing 3-D complex cultures of human stem cells to mimic developing embryonic tissues. The next to last slide in the linked file lists some of the many people to whom I owe so much for sharing their knowledge and expertise. I hope that after reading my story, you can understand that having amazing mentors is very important to your career and that as you advance in your career that you will also take the opportunity to “pay it forward”, helping those whom you supervise, train, and mentor. Also, there were clearly many stages of my path that involved sheer chance that an opportunity was available at the right time or that just the right person was encountered and that they were willing to listen and assist. This career can be challenging, frustrating, humbling, but most of all it enriches my life and I hope you can share that experience wherever your career may lead you.
Tacey White, Teratology Society President
My name is Tacey White and I am the current President of the Teratology Society. Since my graduate school days I have been keenly interested in developmental and reproductive toxicology (DART), and my career path has been shaped around that interest. I received my PhD in 1991 from the University of Rochester in Toxicology with a concentration in Reproductive Toxicology under the mentorship of Teratology Society Past President, Rich Miller. I joined the Society as a student member and gave my first Teratology Society presentation at the Boston Meeting in 1986.
I did not see myself staying in academia, but I did choose to expand my knowledge base by completing postdoctoral fellowships in (1) endocrine disruption and (2) tumor suppressor genes in ovarian cancer. I had planned on only one postdoc, and was disappointed when a challenging job market drove my decision for a second postdoc. However, it turns out that the skills I learned in the second position set me up for the future investigative work I did in industry, and taught me that there is always some value to be derived from any situation, even if it doesn’t feel like that in the moment. I joined the pharmaceutical industry as a DART study director in 1998.
Pharma turned out to be the perfect setting for me because of the fast pace, the ability to work on a wide range of projects, and the chance to learn something new every day. Through the years I held positions of increasing responsibility in DART and as a toxicology representative to drug development teams. And, thanks to the skills learned in that second postdoc, I supervised an investigative teratology laboratory, where we evaluated modes of action and the human relevance of our findings in animal studies. Eventually, I took a position as global director of small animal DART at a Contract Research Organization (CRO), providing scientific oversight into the design, conduct and interpretation of DART studies world-wide, and serving as a DART consultant for pharmaceutical clients. A very rewarding aspect of that position was bringing all that I had learned in big pharma to smaller companies that did not have internal toxicology or DART expertise. That interest led me to my current role as a toxicology consultant in the area of pharmaceutical drug development. In this role, I have the chance to really make a difference to small pharmaceutical/biotech companies and to the patients who will ultimately benefit by their important discoveries.
My advice to students would be to follow your interests, trust your judgment, but also give yourself the time to let new opportunities develop. Your career path will take many turns – some will be unexpected and some will be expected, but may not be what you anticipated. Give yourself time to grow into the role, make the most of your situation – and keep learning something new every day!