ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Angela Wandinger-Ness says going through the sweeping coronavirus pandemic bears some resemblance to the experience she had when the Chernobyl nuclear plant went into meltdown more than three decades ago.
The University of New Mexico pathologist was doing postdoctoral fellowship training in Heidelberg, Germany, at the time. Wandinger-Ness says the community, deeply concerned about radioactivity, took the Geiger counters she and her colleagues were using for research “but didn’t know how to use them and didn’t really know the meaning of them.”
“This pandemic is quite a bit different … but the (German) community was really freaked out because there was a lot of misinformation given out,” she says. “A lot of denial that had happened.”
Wandinger-Ness, who has been at UNM since 1998, has a long list of honors and achievements. An academic who also calls herself a “serial inventor and entrepreneur,” she has been awarded six patents with six more pending. Her research has centered on some particular types of enzymes and their potential as drug targets for treating cancer.
Wandinger-Ness’ latest accolade is the 2020 Lifetime Mentor Award, given by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It recognizes her for mentoring 270 students over her 29-year teaching career, particularly minorities, women and others who are under-represented in STEM fields.
Part of her motivation comes from being the daughter of German immigrants who moved to the U.S. after World War II and from feeling the animosity many still held toward Germany.
Movies at the time would portray Germans “always as evil people,” and kids would sometimes call her “Nazi.” So Wandinger-Ness learned to keep her German heritage to herself – something she could do because “being white and growing up in this country, it’s very easy to blend in.”
But she saw that wasn’t true for everyone.
“Minorities in this country don’t always have that luxury and get called out for it,” she says. “I think it’s very important to be cognizant of that and to promote diversity at all levels – diversity of perspective, diversity in all shapes and forms.”
Did you always know you were going to be a scientist?
“I thought I would be a biologist. I really liked biology always.”
What sparked your interest?
“Just the natural world around me. I just find nature and just being outdoors so interesting. Biology fascinated me. I never really was interested in medicine, per se. I didn’t want to be a physician. I’m a bit squeamish. I think the key thing that probably distinguishes people who like science as opposed to medicine is that (some) want to help others, and they get gratification about doing something now. Immediate feedback and gratification. That’s not what science is. Science is something that is a thought process. Most scientists are introverts. It involves a lot of thinking and careful planning. You do experiments, and they may not work and so there’s a lack of immediate gratification.”
Why is mentoring so important to you?
“If you ask any group – you ask students or older people, it doesn’t matter – there’s always a few people who were extremely influential in their lives. It could be a teacher, it could be a mentor – and a mentor could have a broad definition. It could be a friend, a church member, they can have many different titles. It doesn’t have to be in your field, I don’t think. It’s someone who gives you career advice and helps you find your path and your passion. And so that was certainly true for me. These people are so instrumental in our lives, and I feel like that’s something I wanted to give back.”
Who were your most important mentors?
“First of all, my parents. I was always interested in science, and my parents certainly promoted that. And then I remember being in a biology class in eighth grade. That teacher was extremely demanding, and I just loved it. It was really my passion. But then there were times where I wasn’t sure that I could persist. For example, when I was finishing my graduate education, I really was sick and tired of people telling me what I needed to learn. I knew the things that interested me, and I was getting a degree in biochemistry and I really hated physical chemistry. I took it twice. I managed to pass it, but I really didn’t like it and so then I (thought) ‘earning a Ph.D., I just have to do more of this stuff for another five years? I’m really not interested in that.’ So I stopped out, and I worked in a laboratory as a technician. The person who I worked for treated me as if I were (a) graduate student, and he really taught me both experimental skills and also the intellectual thinking ability about science. That motivated me to apply to graduate school.”
What was your first job?
“My first job was when I was an undergraduate. I started working in clothing retail sales. It made me realize I’m really not cut out for sales.”
How do you equate being a scientist with being an entrepreneur?
“The best analogy for being an academic scientist is that you’re an entrepreneur, because you have to produce a product, you have to hire your people, you have to raise the money and you have to advertise your product. You have to promote yourself. You have to put your science out there in the public view to a certain extent.”
Which aspect of this do you find the most difficult?
“Right now, I would say to you that making people recognize the difference between facts and alternative facts, and fiction and science fiction. I think social media … is a good thing because information is disseminated, but there’s a flip side. You give voice to a lot of people who can say a lot of things online that may not be true, and it’s very hard to discount that. So the challenge scientists have is really how to communicate with the public in a way that can be heard and that can be accepted.”
What makes you successful?
“I guess being comfortable with yourself and what you want, and then trying to pursue those things as best you can, but not taking rejection as an indictment that you’re a failure as a person. Take feedback and use it to improve. I remember having a dance teacher who once said, ‘If I critique you, it’s because I think you’re worth it.’ I guess also following the things that I’m interested in. I think science is very collaborative and collegial … and I really like that aspect of it.”
Do you have any regrets?
“Not necessarily. I think as a scientist, you have to be an optimist and persevere, and so I always tell my trainees that you make a decision and then you don’t worry whether it’s right or wrong. You just move forward, and if you don’t like where you are, you make a new decision. It’s better than saying ‘I shoulda, coulda, woulda.’ You say, ‘OK, I took this opportunity, I learned this, this is what I’m taking away and now I’m going to make a new decision.’ For me, always moving forward is really important.”
One-on-One with Angela Wandinger-Ness
THE BASICS: Angela Wandinger-Ness, 62, born in Asbury Park, New Jersey; Post-doctorate fellow, European Molecular Biology Lab, 1986-1991; Ph.D. in biochemistry, UCLA, 1985; bachelor’s in biochemistry, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1979.
POSITIONS: UNM Health Sciences Center, associate pathology chair, since 2019; UNM School of Medicine Biomedical Research Education Program, director of post-doctoral training, since 2019; Victor and Ruby Hansen Surface Endowed Professor in Cancer Cell Biology and Clinical Translation, since 2015; Director, CURE Native American Undergraduate and High School Student Training Program, director, since 2014; Teaching/researcher at the UNM Department of Pathology since 1998; Northwestern University, assistant professor of biochemistry, molecular and cell biology, 1991-1998; European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg, Germany, 1986-1991.