My Corner of the World: Regina Kolaitis, PhD

St. Jude project leader uses scientific background to explain details of cutting-edge research to a non-scientific audience

By Keith Crabtree, PhD

Regina Kolaitis of the St. Jude Liaison Office is a native of Greece.

Regina Kolaitis, PhD, of the St. Jude Liaison Office is a native of Greece.

Regina Kolaitis, PhD dreamed about a life in science.

As an undergraduate biology student at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Greece, she wanted to go to graduate school. But graduate school, postdoctoral work, a job – any of these things – might require her to move away from family. Born in Pennsylvania, Kolaitis moved to Kefalonia Island, Greece, when she was 3 years old.

“I don’t know if I would ever come back to Kefalonia,” she told her father.

“You don't have to come back,” he said. “You can do anything you want.” 

Eventually, she went to graduate school, earned a doctorate in genetics and biotechnology, and left Greece to return to the United States.

A balcony with a view

“I could see the beach and smell the sea from my balcony,” Kolaitis said, recalling her childhood on the island.

Kefalonia, encircled by the Ionian Sea, was an idyllic place to grow up with its turquoise blue waters, flawless beaches and lush vegetation. After school, Kolaitis explored remote trails and beaches near her home in the village of Lassi.

In the summertime, she went to the beach with her brother and sister. Kolaitis, who knew how to swim by the time she was 4, can still recall the warmth of the summer sun, the smell of sea salt and pine trees, and the joy of unencumbered time. 

Summertime, however, wasn’t all play and no work; her parents owned a market, which kept all their children gainfully occupied. Catering to beachgoers from Northern Europe, they sold swimming suits, sunscreen, souvenirs, ice cream, groceries – anything you might want or need during vacation in Kefalonia.

Kolaitis’ brother is taking over the family business. Kolaitis’ sister, who holds a doctorate in biostatistics, lives near the market.

A series of fortunate events

When she was 21, Kolaitis traveled to Memphis with her sister to attend an international biostatistics conference at the University of Memphis. At the airport, she saw a St. Jude ad that piqued her curiosity.

A quick internet search showed that St. Jude was different from other hospitals. She couldn’t believe families never receive a bill for treatment. “I kept that in mind,” she said.

A year later, as a doctoral student at the University of Athens, she attended a lecture. The professor, unbeknownst to Kolaitis, had completed postdoctoral work at St. Jude. He showed photos and gave a glowing account of his time in Memphis.

“I know this place!” Kolaitis said, turning to her classmates.

A year or two later, while attending an international conference in Athens, Kolaitis met Carl Jackson, PhD, the former leader of Academic Programs at St. Jude.

Jackson’s recruitment pitch worked, and Kolaitis joined St. Jude in 2011 to complete postdoctoral work. She was preceded by her husband, Yiannis Drosos, PhD, who also met Jackson at the conference that day. Drosos is a scientific manager in the Oncology lab of Charlie Roberts, MD, PhD, Comprehensive Cancer Center director and executive vice president.

The research side

Kolaitis worked for six years as a postdoctoral research associate in the lab of J. Paul Taylor, MD, PhD, Cell and Molecular Biology chair. As a grant- and award-funded postdoc, Kolaitis published many papers, including a paper in the journal Cell that furthered scientists’ understanding of stress granule dissolution, a critical process in the progression of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Kolaitis later worked as a staff scientist for two years in the Pathology lab of James R. Downing, MD, St. Jude president and CEO.

In April 2019, she moved to the St. Jude Liaison Office. The Liaison Office’s team manages the partnership between St. Jude and ALSAC, the fundraising organization for the hospital.

“I had a chance to learn about all the research at St. Jude,” she said. “In that sense, I feel even closer to the hospital’s mission.”

One of six project leaders, Kolaitis still employs scientific know-how to get things done. She works daily to acquaint herself with the breadth and depth of research conducted at St. Jude so she can explain the details of research programs to a non-scientific audience. She also helps support the St. Jude Research Staff Council, which represents a community of 720 basic science staff.

She enjoys the sense of completion that permeates the many short-term but demanding projects in the Liaison Office.

“I love my job,” she said.

A backup plan

On Sundays, Regina and Yiannis sit with their 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter for leisurely lunches. 

Kolaitis said family meals help build a sense of security, a sense of belonging. She wants her children to know it’s OK to go out in the world; it’s OK to follow their dreams. Family will always take them in.

“I think my family made me strong,” she said. “I can live without the beach, but I wish I could have my family closer.”

She finds solace in video calls with family and daydreams about Lassi – the balcony; the piney, salty smells of the sea; a cup of coffee with her sister and work in the family market.

“Lassi is my backup plan,” she said. 

A few of Kolaitis’ favorite things:

Pastitsio (Greek lasagna). "The children love it, and it's easy to cook.”

Traveling to San Diego and Lake Tahoe with her husband, and traveling to Greece every other year to spend time with family at the beach. "All my favorite places are related to water."

Olympiacos F.C. (a football club in Athens)

American football "We watch the Super Bowl, understand the rules and love the game, but then it takes us a year to go back and watch American football again."

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