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Tracing Martine Roussel’s independent streak from Africa to the National Academy of Sciences

Martine Roussel, PhD, is renowned for investigations into molecular-level causes of cancer and strategies in developing new treatments for pediatric brain tumors. Read about her journey from a childhood hike in the jungle to St. Jude.

Memphis, Tennessee, March 3, 2020

During Women’s History Month, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital honors its past, present and future by highlighting women who advance scientific research, excellence in medical care and treatment.

Martine Roussel, PhD, in lab with researcher

Martine Roussel, PhD, is a mentor, scientist and member of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Martine Roussel, PhD, has blazed an independent streak across three continents. Before she isolated new oncogenes as a graduate student in France and before her discoveries related to pediatric brain tumors at St. Jude, the teenaged future scientist enjoyed hiking in the Central African jungle—preferably alone.

Roussel, a member of the Department of Tumor Cell Biology at St. Jude, carries that confidence and independence with her as a scientist. That helps explain her 2019 election to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the most prestigious membership appointment for scientists pursuing original research in the United States.

From Gabon to St. Jude

Born in France and raised in Cameroon, Guinea, Mali and Gabon, Roussel developed an early fascination with Sub-Saharan Africa’s teeming ecosystems while accompanying her father on hunting expeditions. One of her early female role models was Jane Goodall. The British primatologist and anthropologist was studying chimpanzees on the other side of the Congo Basin in Tanzania.

Roussel returned to France to complete her education, which culminated in research posts at the French National Center for Scientific Research and the Pasteur Institute. Following a National Cancer Institute fellowship in Maryland, Roussel moved to Memphis in 1983 to join the Department of Tumor Cell Biology at St. Jude.

Together with her long-standing collaborator and partner Charles Sherr, MD, PhD, Roussel has made key contributions to the understanding of receptor signal transduction, cell cycle control and tumor development. Her research implicated Myc genes as key regulators for biological processes, essential for understanding the origins of medulloblastoma, the most common childhood brain tumor.

Roussel developed a mouse model used to identify two chemotherapeutic compounds now used to treat Myc-driven medulloblastoma. Another discovery, how BMP4 proteins stop the growth of specific brain tumor cells and turn them into normal brain cells, suggested a safer way to treat a different type of medulloblastoma.

NAS logo

The National Academy of Sciences is the most prestigious membership appointment for scientists pursuing original research in the U.S.  (NAS photo)

Preparing new scientists for new challenges

The people who were probably the least surprised by Roussel's election to the NAS are the many postdoctoral fellows and graduate students who participated in Roussel's ongoing explorations in the Roussel-Sherr Lab. Under her guidance and example, Roussel's trainees have developed the skills and confidence to make their own translational discoveries.

This emphasis on mentorship was part of Roussel's plan.

Her graduate school mentor withheld career support when Roussel decided to pursue a postdoc fellowship in the United States rather than in his laboratory in France. As a University of Lille PhD student, in a first-author 1979 Nature paper, Roussel had identified and named three new avian retroviral oncogenes (genes that can transform a cell into a tumor cell).

"I thought it was unfair," Roussel said. "Because of this experience, I do the complete opposite and help as many junior investigators and postdoctoral fellows as I can. When people leave my laboratory, they can usually take whatever they want. We discuss what they are planning to do, and we try not to compete with each other."

In 2017, Roussel was named St. Jude Faculty Mentor of the Year. The recognition reflected her postdoctoral fellows' accounts of her emphasis on life-work balance and understanding how researchers can follow diverse post-postdoc career paths. She mentors each postdoc so they are more competitive when they reach their destination, whether that is in academia, industry or government.

Un personnage dual

Roussel lives and works in Memphis, which was once part of the French Empire. France gave up its North American territories long ago, but keeps track of notable French expatriates. In 2011, when Roussel was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the French consulate in Atlanta published an interview with her and attributed her success to her contrasting strengths:

"Martine Roussel has a dual personality, peaceful and energetic, scientific with an artist's touch, French and American. This duality unites and comes to life in Martine Roussel to form a happy woman of character, committed to fighting against cancer, for children and for science."

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