Manage episode 260081343 series 2661367
How amazing would it be to regrow diseased or missing body parts?
I am hopeful it will happen someday, but science is not quite there yet. What is more realistic short-term is to teach your body how to heal faster, and that’s precisely what Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler– an immunologist by trade and former postdoctoral fellow at MIT who’s been selected as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 in science– is working on. More specifically, her potentially groundbreaking research is focused on how the immune system can regenerate functional tissue.
So think of a scar that fully heals itself, leaving that previously wounded area as if nothing happened. Amazing right?
It certainly sounds like science fiction but the process of getting to a major breakthrough like this is brutal. Think, lots of failures, dead ends and questions that lead to other questions. It takes something extraordinary to stick with it and in the process of struggle, lies the possibility of breakthroughs.
Tune in to learn about what it takes to lead groundbreaking discoveries:
- What is takes to produce a breakthrough
- What it’s like to be a woman in science
- How to be with failure
- What the path to success looks like
Connect with Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler:
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler’s biography:
Kaitlyn Sadtler, Ph.D. joined NIBIB as an Earl Stadtman Tenure-Track Investigator and Chief of the Section for Immunoengineering in 2019. Prior to her arrival to the NIH, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Daniel Anderson, Ph.D. and Robert Langer, Ph.D., focusing on the molecular mechanisms of medical device fibrosis. During her time at MIT, Dr. Sadtler was awarded an NRSA Ruth L Kirschstein Postdoctoral Fellowship, was listed on BioSpace’s 10 Life Science Innovators Under 40 To Watch and StemCell Tech’s Six Immunologists and Science Communicators to Follow. In 2018, she was named a TED Fellow and delivered a TED talk which was listed as one of the 25 most viewed talks in 2018. She was also elected to the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 List in Science, selected as a 2020 TEDMED Research Scholar, and received multiple other awards. Dr. Sadtler received her Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where her thesis research was published in Science magazine, Nature Methods, and others. She was recently featured in the Johns Hopkins Medicine Magazine as an alumna of note. Dr. Sadtler completed her bachelor’s degree summa cum laude at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, followed by a postbaccalaureate IRTA at the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Immunology at NIAID.
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Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: If we can understand how the good materials work, then we can engineer further toward really promoting tissue regeneration.
Tanya: That’s Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler, an immunologist by trade and former postdoctoral fellow at MIT who’s been selected as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 in science for her groundbreaking research around how the immune system can regenerate functional tissue. In her TED Talk titled “How We Could Teach Our Bodies to Heal Faster,” she shares details on her research findings, which resonated with millions. More recently, Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler was hired by the National Institutes of Health to lead her own lab and pursue scientific breakthroughs in her field. You have a very interesting segue into the sciences and laboratory space and academia, really. You started off as a veterinarian technician. How was that experience like?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: I had, really, a great opportunity growing up. I grew up about three miles away from a veterinary clinic back in rural Maryland, and I actually started working there when I was in high school. At the beginning of that, as opposed to what you think of with veterinary technicians drawing blood, things like that, I was a – I like to call it a glorified poop scooper, but it was great because I got to play with dogs. What was amazing about that clinic was the fact that the veterinarian that owned the business as well as the different older vet techs that worked there is that, even if you were the one scooping the poop in the beginning, they still were teaching you. Oh, hey, do you want to learn how to draw blood today? One of the tech’s dogs would be in, and they’d go, hey, come on over, high school kid. Let’s teach you something.
That was great because it was – before I went into college and a little bit in the summers when I’d come home, I got to work at this vet clinic. It was an exposure to medicine. I really loved animals, and I still do. They really were all about teaching you how to do things, even if early on it wasn’t part of my job description. It was a great segue into medicine and got to work with puppies and kittens, which is amazing.
Tanya: Oh, that’s really great. When you think about having a job in high school, it’s usually at a café, or bussing tables, or something like that. The fact that you got to be in a veterinary setting and learn all these early medical stuff on animals, that’s unique. Did you always know that your path was going to be in science and academia and eventually running your own lab, or how was that process of you getting into the field of immunology?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: I’d say that, when I was just a young kid, I mean, I think the first career that I can think of that I wanted to be was a paleontologist, and I was probably the only 5-year-old who could say that. This was back in the 90s. Jurassic Park was huge. There was a Dr. Sattler in Jurassic Park I was very excited about. I was always interested in some of those in the sciencey fields, and I’d say that it evolved towards the medicine and molecular biology as I grew older. When I was in undergraduate, when I was in college, I was planning on being a surgeon, actually. I was thinking of going and doing an MD, and I did a research internship partially just to have some research experience for a med school application. It was with a friend of mine that I played soccer with in high school. In fact, I was on a boys soccer team in high school.
Tanya: Yeah, that’s awesome.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: His dad actually worked at a lab that was about 20 minutes away from where I went to college. I was able to do an internship with him, and wound up really liking research science. As far as immunology goes, my second summer there I worked on this platform that they were developing to try and detect food toxins so things that give you upset stomach, etc., etc. What we were doing was working with this platform that could identify different toxins and pathogens, for example, in foods. It could be like food poisoning to figure out how to engineer pieces of the immune system, specifically these two small proteins that recognize different foreign antigens or foreign substances. They were engineered so that when they bound their target it would shoot off a visible light signal, so you could see it the dish when that pathogen was present. That really interested me because it showed me the strength of the immune system really being able to be specific in identifying these different harmful pathogens that our body might come across. That’s what actually led me to, after college, joining up in an immunology lab and really focusing in. Then, after that, I had the opportunity to integrate it with some engineering in a biomedical engineering lab during my PhD, and that’s led me to where I was today or am today.
Tanya: Okay, got it. Then immunologist, really, what it does is just study everything broadly that the immune system tackles, or what is it?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: There’s a whole bunch of different kinds of immunologists. One example would be immunologists that are working on infectious disease, and that can be specified down into, for example, immunologists working on viruses or a very specific virus. There are cancer immunologists. They try and figure how exactly a tumor can evade our immune system. It’s one of the characteristics of cancer is that, though it’s something that’s not supposed to be there, our immune system is not detecting it properly, so you’ve got cancer immunologists. You hear a lot of this immunotherapy or getting your immune system to attack the cancer. All of that stuff is engineering the immune system to recognize and attack cancer. Then you’ve also got allergists, so people that look at food allergies or environmental allergens. That’s all associated with the immune system.
Where I’m working is in a relatively new field in the context of biomedical engineering and, specifically, regenerative medicine. We can learn a lot from people that have worked in the immune healing area. That’s, for example, you get a cut on your skin. Your immune system is really important in stitching that back together. What we’re trying to do is really learn from the immune system, and then promote growth of that tissue. Instead of being a scar, being actual functional tissue, something in the case of skin as opposed to a scar having hair follicles and oil glands and things like that that can function.
Tanya: In other words, your part of the research is taking a look at how the body – how you can jumpstart the body’s ability to fully recover as if nothing had happened in the first place?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: That would be the goal, yes.
Tanya: That would be a great goal. That would be a really good goal. Actually, you talk about this in your really, really, really great TED Talk, which is titled “How We Could Teach Our Body to Heal Faster,” and you talk about some organisms that exist already that have the ability to regrow full body parts like the salamander. I think the salamander, if somehow it loses a leg or an arm, it has the ability to regrow in 31 days, or actually, somebody that I know gave 50% of their liver to their father. They were a match and had the ability to live and then also regrow, so that’s another organ that human beings have an ability to regrow. Having studied this area, how far are we away from having the capabilities to not just have our liver regrow, for example, but a diseased body parts or missing limbs?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: With that, it’s speaking of quite the broad structure. For example, a limb is made up of a whole lot of different tissues, right? You have muscles. You have nerves. You have bones. You have skin that goes over it. Anytime you’re jumping to a complex tissue where it’s got a bunch of different tissue types, again, bone, muscles, nerves, skin, and that starts to get a lot more complicated. What has been looked at currently you’ll see are people that are focusing in on tissue types.
For example, I worked a bit on traumatic muscle injury. There are people that are very specific, and they’ve worked on skin. Then there are people that also have worked on bone. When we’re moving forward into these regenerative therapeutics, it’s going to be a collaboration between different fields so, for example, us immunologists working alongside of stem cell biologists to really get a handle on the whole problem or issue at play.
Tanya: Okay, I can see how growing human body parts in the absence of one would be much more complicated. What about diseased body parts, like specific organs?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: For this, it’ll depend on the type of disease. For example, if you have something like a genetic disease, that you’ll have to really focus in on the genetics behind it. You can treat symptomatically. For example, muscular dystrophy you can try and treat so that you can regain some of your muscle function, but ultimately, it’s a genetic condition. You have to deliver either cells that still have the functional protein that is missing. Muscular dystrophy is a protein that’s missing, and that’s how you get the muscle damage, or you go in, and you try and actually edit the genes themselves. That’s where you’ll see these new technologies coming into play, for example, CRISPR and other such genome editing technologies. Again, that’s somewhere where we can all very much work together in what is known as convergent research. This idea that, instead of fields being siloed separately, geneticists, bioengineers, molecular biologists, the research is really requiring multiple fields coming together and working together to create solutions.
Tanya: Yeah, in my nonmedical vocabulary, I call that triangulating. The body is so multifaceted that looking at it in a vacuum would really produce only vacuum results, so I get that. Where are we at in even understanding how our liver reproduces, and what part of that body part allows it to do that?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: We’re learning more and more about the liver. I’d say it’s not my specialty, so I myself haven’t contributed to that literature. It’s understanding ways that different immune cells work within the tissue as well as the different stem cells that reside within the tissue. On the immunology side, which is the part that I’m interested in, of course, is each organ has its own resident immune cells. Those immune cells can actually arrive before we’re born, so our whole body is populated with different resident immune cells. We have specific types of cells that live in our skin, that live in our brain, that live in our liver, and these different cells can act very differently because of their tissue context. On the immunology side, we’re learning more and more about how these tissue resident cells, these cells that arrive before we’re born – so they’re not circulating in our bloodstream. They’re hanging out in the tissue and how they’re affected by developing in that specific tissue and what responses that they’re trained to do.
Tanya: As you’re talking, I realize that I have no idea exactly what an immune system is. I have a concept of it, which is it’s a system that is going to protect my body against infections and other stuff, but what is it exactly? Is it just a collection of cells that carry out a number of different functions?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: Our immune system is a collection of both circulating cells so cells going around in our blood. There are cells, again, that are resident in what we call nonimmune organs, so for example, our liver is technically – it’s not an immune organ. Our brain is not an immune organ, but those both have their own immune cells. There’s also specific immune organs. The spleen, our [14:28], and our bone marrow are all really hubs of immune cell activation. Basically, in the context of an infection, which is how it’s normally taught, so let’s say you have an infection on your skin. The cells in your skin send out a warning signal, which causes a certain type of cell called an innate immune cell. Innate, you can think of that reptilian brain style innate that goes to that infection and starts fighting. It also gathers that signal, and it can wander back to a lymph node. There it can then activate inside of the immune system called the adaptive immune system, and that’s the very specific part of the immune system.
When we get vaccines, we’re educating our adaptive immune system because it can remember the threat that it saw in the vaccine to help fight off the actual disease. That way, those parts of our immune system, the cells that are floating around in the blood, the cells that are local in that tissue, as well as the cells that are in our immune organs can all help fight off the infection or, in the case that my research and the research of our field is looking at, is how it can help heal tissue, how it can help guide our tissue to grow properly.
Tanya: Okay, so let’s focus on your area, which is fascinating. Where are you at in terms of the state of knowing how to help areas heal faster right now?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: What I have been looking at recently is understanding the way that our immune system recognizes materials that are implanted in the body as foreign. That’s going to be one of the initial steps. If we’re putting in, for example, something that we call a scaffold, we think of scaffolding for anything, like a building, something you build upon. In our case, it’s what we build tissue upon. If you put that material in, our immune system in our body is going to go wait a second. This is not supposed to be here. If you’ve ever gotten a splinter, you know it turns red and our body tries to get it out, so that’s called a foreign body response.
What we want is we don’t want this inflammatory angry response to happen around this material we’re putting in to try and grow new tissue, so we need to come at it from two sides. We need to know this from the healing side, but we also need to know how exactly our body is interacting with the materials we’re implanting. What I’ve recently done during some of my postdoctoral work is found a certain pathway that links some of the scarring that we see in an injury with some of the scarring or what we call fibrosis around a material that’s been implanted. Our immune system doesn’t like it. It tries to attack it. If it can’t attack it, it deposits a scar over it to try and block it off. That research, hopefully, will be published sometime in the near future.
Tanya: Your research really focuses on understanding the mechanisms of that dynamic.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: Yeah, if we understand the mechanisms, we understand how something works. We can then target it with therapeutics, which we have begun to do as well in that project. We’re able to target that mechanism with a drug, and then decrease our body’s negative response to that material.
Tanya: I see. In other words, by knowing what the drivers are, you can actually then manipulate the drivers to have, let’s say, a forced reaction to something.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: Exactly, you have the bottom up. It’s one way of doing it is the bottom up. If we understand the biology behind it and we understand the mechanism behind it so how our body’s responding to it and why, then we can develop therapeutics for that.
Tanya: Why would you implant or in what cases would you implant a foreign body into your body, like the scaffolding that you were mentioning?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: In the field of regenerative medicine specifically – for example, if you have a traumatic defect so if there is, for example, a farming accident or a bomb explosion, anything that resulted in a large piece of tissue that has been damaged and that has to be removed, what we can do and the goal would be to place a scaffold or material in there that fills that space and also gives our stem cells and our tissue something to grow onto. That is one example where we’re looking for the immune system to really interact and tell our tissue how to grow and heal itself. Then there are other sides where we just want our immune system to not even notice it’s there, so this is something that we implant where we just want it to exist and not interact at all. That, for example, would be pacemaker leads, the needle for an insulin pump, the needles for a glucose monitor, those sorts of things where we really don’t need the immune system doing anything other than ignoring it. There’s two classes of materials: ones we want to interact, which are the ones that I will be – I’m working with; the ones we don’t want to interact or we want there to be just the general tolerance of.
Tanya: What are some technologies that we can expect on the market that would help our body heal faster?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: What has been looked at recently – so one material that has been in the clinic for a few years but only over the past about ten years has been really dug into how our immune system is helping it is called a decellularized tissue or extracellular matrix. We call it ECM. Some people have seen this image that had gone around online of a “ghost heart.” It’s a heart that had all of the cells removed out of it, and so that’s extracellular matrix. This material is made by pretty much treating a native tissue or something, a normal piece of tissue. Mostly, it can be porcine so from pig donors, or it can also come from human donors, deceased human donors, and then you treat it with acid as well as some soap. That helps pull out the living cells. We don’t have that transplant rejection, but you have this nice complex material that’s been made by a body. It’s biologic. It’s not a plastic.
That has been used in multiple clinical context, including abdominal wall repair so hernia repair. What that will do is it’s – the phrase we use is remodeled, so it’s like remodeling your house. It’s been converted into more the patient’s own tissue. It’s [21:38], so that way it can slowly be processed and formed back into something that is similar to the patient’s own tissue. That’s one material that, actually, they’ve learned over the past few years is it’s really important to have the immune cells there. Our immune system actually governs quite a bit of that repair. Those are, again, currently used in different hernia repairs as well as I believe diabetic foot ulcers, just sealing off some of the connective tissues as well.
Tanya: You were mentioning in your TED Talk – this is something that I really liked. It’s almost like, when you break something, you can put it back together again, but there’s always a sensitivity or a weakness in the area that it was broken. It’ll never be as it was before. In this technology that you’re researching and you’re developing where you’re really encouraging the body to regenerate as it was previous to the injury, can you talk a little bit about that part of it?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: When I was actually speaking in that talk, I was referring to some work that we had done on these ECM scaffolds specifically, so these weren’t developed directly by our lab but have been worked on by multiple labs. With these, pretty much what we’re trying to see is do we get a scar? Do we get the dense collagen tissue that’s not super functional, or do we get real new tissue that comes out? When we were looking at muscle, what we saw was that there was a specific type of immune cell that, if those were absent, we saw more scar tissue, and we saw smaller muscle fibers that didn’t look too great, and if those immune cells were present, we saw larger muscle fibers. We saw less scar tissue. That’s when we’re starting to learn exactly how these materials work, so if we can understand how the good materials work, then we can engineer further toward really promoting tissue regeneration.
Tanya: I hope that you guys really get there. The application would be huge, and the innovation would be truly breakthrough.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: The field is definitely very excited. I will say that. There are clinical results that are really excited about the promise of the work that’s out there.
Tanya: How far do you think we are from being able to deliver on that?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: What I always say is that, though a lot of people want me to say, oh, we’re going to be regenerating arms next year, which would be great, super great, I will definitely agree. The thing is is that, for most technologies, for example, when you start your clinical trials, when you start, you filed your invention, your patent on it, and you start that. It’ll take ten years for it to see a clinic just to make sure that it’s safe. Even if we had something right now, it would take a bit of time. That being said, there are other things that have been worked on in the past so, for example, improving these materials that are helping with abdominal wall repair. Those weren’t present 20 years ago.
The way I see for whole limbs is that, as opposed to something along the lines of being able to regenerate a whole arm, as opposed to – I’d say, as opposed to Deadpool, think a little bit more Luke Skywalker. Working with people that are creating integrative prosthesis that our immune system won’t reject some of the integrative parts of that I think is the next step. We’ll see a lot more coming in with these prosthesis for whole limb. I do really hope in the future where we can start seeing therapeutics that might lead to starting with small fingers. Even the skin is a complex tissue. We don’t think about it, but it’s got hair follicles. It’s got oil glands. It’s got a little bit of a muscle layer underneath it. It’s an exciting field, and we’re starting to see some of those products coming out, and over the next several years, as this field has really started to grow, we’ll see a lot more coming out in the preclinical and clinical realm.
Tanya: Part of your job is to really discover what is not out there yet, and that takes something. It’s a tremendous discovery process, but the fact that it is even out there as a potential thing that eventually we could or we would like to achieve is a great starting point. Just shifting gears a little bit into something that personally affected my family, which is Lyme disease, it’s starting to be known as an immune disease, but not a lot is known about it. There was an amazing article that just circulated. I think it was last week about a woman’s experience in dealing with Lyme, and I sent it to everybody that I know that had Lyme. I don’t even know if this is your area of specialty, but Lyme affects the immune system. It’s known that, in long-term untreated patients that have Lyme disease, if it goes undiagnosed for a long period of time – let’s say five, ten years, whatever it is. Then they go and they take the antibiotics, and they go through the treatments. It’s well documented that patients have side effects and reoccurring symptoms periodically and for long periods of time. Seemingly, the parasite has removed or the disease has been removed from the body. Do you know anything about this field and what is actually going on there?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: I am learning more. I have a close family member that has chronic Lyme and diagnosed with an autoimmune condition. It is known that infections can lead to autoimmunity. It can lead to sometimes cancers, viral cancers. For example, HPV can lead to cervical cancer, as the fun reminder to please get vaccinated. We have [28:20] vaccinated. They’re very good. Infections like Lyme can cause the state of inflammation, this imbalance in your immune system, and then you start to see things pop up that are symptomatic of autoimmunity.
This is a field that is adjacent to what I work on but not directly what I work on, but it is very interesting because it is an imbalance in your immune system that is created. There are researchers that have been working on more specified autoimmune style conditions. For example, type 1 diabetes where your immune cells attack your pancreatic islet cells, the ones that produce insulin. There are researchers that are working on that as well as multiple sclerosis and other disease that is – I believe it’s MS. Apologies, I’m not a neuro person either. Your immune system is attacking the myelin sheath around your neurons, so more and more we find out that the immune system is intricately tied to a number of diseases, not just fighting off infections.
There have been engineering approaches where we’re trying to calm our immune system down. These patients often get put on high-dose prednisone or high-dose steroids which come with their own host of side effects. Though I do not know the Lyme field that well, I plan on learning a lot more of it. [29:48] is due to the personal infection. There has been research there, but I’d say that just the role of the immune system in so many processes in our body has been – the research is absolutely exploding, and the appreciation for its importance is really increasing.
Tanya: The appreciation for the development, is that for Lyme specifically?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: I’d say for multiple. I don’t know about Lyme specifically as it is outside of my field but, in general, infections and things like that. Some of these sicknesses that you’d see that people would present with, there was no etiology. They had no idea what the cause was and find out that their immune system is acting up. I think that doing more of that basic research that – when I say basic, I mean understanding the biology. Doing more of that biologic research, the immunologic research is going to open doors to some of these therapeutics. I think that it’s going to take a little bit of time to really understand that link, but that door I believe is open now.
Tanya: Yeah, I don’t know what family member you have that has that. My mom went undiagnosed with Lyme for ten years, and it showed up. The doctors thought that she had rheumatoid arthritis. Meanwhile, the disease was causing havoc in her body for all that time. Really, this is a field that’s such of interest to me, and we have such a long way to go in terms of how to treat it and how to help people that are really affected by that. I’m glad to hear that there’s advancements happening and, hopefully, a lot more.
Moving more on to the mental part of what you do because that’s – that plays a huge part in your ability to stick with the process and eventually come push the boundaries of what’s known and come up with really profound discoveries. What is your process for pushing the envelope and coming up with key discoveries?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: For me, I’d say that coming into the field as somebody that had a basic immunology, a – by basic immunology, I mean really concentrating on the immune cells, the function of them. Coming into bioengineering from that background has really helped me out. I really like to look at it, again, from that bottom up view. What’s causing it? What’s going on here? What pieces can we connect? You can go to different conferences or talk to other researchers about the science that they’re doing, and you start to see different pieces that go, huh, I see that popping up in my material that I’ve put in here. What’s going on there? What’s the connection there? It’s really thinking about the immune system. Thinking about what it does and what it’s been reported to do.
Then, just on the personal side of things, going out and going for a hike is the biggest thing. Going outside or just doing something away from the lab for a little bit can really free your mind open, and that’s, I think, for most people. Remove yourself from an environment if you get stuck and if you just need to think. I’d say going outside, going for a walk, going for a swim, or just doing whatever makes you happy that doesn’t make your brain work too hard. That gives your brain some space.
Tanya: Yeah, isn’t that funny when you have – I’ve spoken to so many people, by the way. Whether it’s scientists, or academia, or entrepreneurs, business operators, doesn’t matter, the biggest breakthroughs happened in the shower, on the toilet, taking a run in the morning. I mean, you name it. Yeah, so I guess it’s really allowing yourself that unstructured thinking where your subconscious does a lot of the dot connecting and, boom, an idea opens up. It’s amazing.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: Yeah, that’s why you give yourself the mental space is – I’m going camping this weekend. Before I start up my next position, I’m headed out into the woods for a weekend to just clear my head, of course, and then come back and get ready to do some fun science.
Tanya: That’s awesome. If you look back on your career up until now, what has been single-handedly the toughest challenge that you have had to overcome?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: I was born and raised in Maryland. I went to college there. I did my PhD there. Then I decided that I needed to break out of the box a little bit, of my box, and I moved up to Boston. I knew no one in the city, and it was a big jump for me. When science can get stressful, it’s really important I think, for multiple careers, to have that personal side. When you move up somewhere for work, it’s not as much like when you move somewhere to start an educational program.
For example, college, you’re starting. You’ve got orientation with all the other college freshman. Same with my PhD, when we started our PhD, we had this core set of people. For me, that move up to Boston, that going into a city where I didn’t know anyone in several hours driving radius was definitely tough for me to start, and of course, now I miss all of the friends that I made there. I’d say that moment of getting myself out of my comfort zone, which was Maryland, and now I’ve returned.
Tanya: I did it. I’m done, check, going back.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: The way I see it is that part of the reason that I stayed in Maryland so long was how much great science is in the state as well as DC. Though there are so many opportunities in the area, I just had to physically leave for a little bit. It was like, nope, stop it. I got the great opportunity to come back to the Maryland area to start my own lab at the National Institutes of Health. I’m really excited for it. Not only do I get to do science at a great institution, I get to do it around my family, which is great.
Tanya: Oh, my God, that’s like a double win. That’s incredible. As a scientist, a lot of what you’re doing is learning what doesn’t work. Ninety percent of the time you’re finding things out that don’t work, that lead to nowhere, but there’s a small sliver of the time that it leads to really great discoveries. What has been your journey like and process like to really embrace failure as a part of your journey to success?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: I think that every scientist you’ll meet will have a great sense of sarcastic humor. I think that’s the one thing that we all develop is this great cynical sarcastic humor and just an ability to bounce back. When we’re saying a huge chunk of things in science aren’t working, it’s not even necessarily the big picture ideas. It might be your day-to-day. This technical thing that I tried just didn’t work, or this protocol that I read somewhere didn’t work for me. Early on, it’s rough, I will say, when you’re starting something out, and you’re like, oh, this is horrible. Nothing’s working. A PhD is not for everybody. I will definitely say that.
You learn eventually that it’ll work out. The more you learn that hasn’t worked, the more you can form that, okay, so this hypothesis was wrong, but it showed me this so knowing that you’re forming the bigger picture. You’re not going into something saying this is what I want to see. You go into something saying what am I going to see? That thought really helps when you go I don’t know what I “want to see.” I just want to see what happened.
Tanya: That’s an interesting way to frame the context of a project or even life, right? Going in and being committed to – especially when you’re pushing the boundaries of what’s known. I would imagine that that type of context is absolutely fundamental to allow you to have a particular process.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: I think it’s something that has also helped with life in general. That viewpoint of que sera, sera, [39:02] of let’s see what happens. For example, when I moved up to Boston, let’s see what happens.
Tanya: Being in the science field, have you felt that you needed to work harder because you’re a woman in a male dominated field, or did you ever feel that you were different or that the ratio – what was your experience like being a woman in your area of expertise?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: I’d say, of course, there have been negative experiences associated with it. I luckily had a great female PhD advisor, Jennifer [39:50] up at Hopkins, who was a great accomplished woman scientist that I worked with during my entire PhD. Of course, there are the moments where you’re at conferences, and you see everyone go to grab lunch. It’s the boys club, or there’s buddies that are friends or stuff like that. For me, I’ve always had that vision of I will work hard. I’ll do my science, and the science will speak for itself.
It doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes it’s no matter how you work it’s not going to – you’re not going to break that glass ceiling. I’ve had good experiences. I’ve had bad experiences. Ultimately, they’ve shaped me into the scientist I am today. I haven’t let anything get me down. When you are talking to people that say, oh, they were chatting with you because you’re a 20-something female at a conference, I just try and ignore it a bit and go on with my day. There are certain things that women have definitely had a harder time than I have. I will definitely phrase it like that.
It can be rough, but at the same time, I think that I’ve been in labs that it hasn’t been as much of an issue. I’ve had some interactions, of course, that were not for best. I have been lucky in the fact that I haven’t been in labs that that really formed the basis of what people thought of you.
Tanya: Yeah, that’s great. Just to get a sense for your journey, what was the one thing, the one experience, the one negative experience that you remember that stands out?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: Once I was a young scientist, I had someone tell me that I should go be a psychologist because it’s got spreadsheets, and that’s good for women. Leave laboratory science to men. That was [42:03].
Tanya: You’re kidding. Oh, my God!
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: Not only was it demeaning to the field of psychology and the fact that he had suggested that it was an easier field so not only did he insult an entire field, but it was suggested that some fields, i.e. laboratory science, weren’t good for women.
Tanya: What do you even say to that? That’s crazy.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: I just said that I graduated third in my class behind two other women. That was the only thing I could think of.
Tanya: Yeah, you’re like actually, no, you have no idea.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: I wound up switching to working with another individual. It worked out after that. I tried to prove myself to this individual, but I realized there was nothing changing their mind. It was a moment of maybe I’m not cut out for this as a young female scientist, but ultimately speaking, it showed me what can happen and what you might come across. That was a tough day.
Tanya: Yeah, I can imagine. Yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve spoken with a lot of very accomplished women, and I also work with very accomplished women at a board level and executive level in businesses. It’s interesting because there’s always an inflection point or often an inflection point in their careers where they say they trust themselves. They have enough under their belt where they don’t feel like they have to prove themselves. It’s like I am who I am. My history speaks for itself. That’s it. I don’t care. This is not a thing anymore.
Until they reach that level, it’s a battle. It’s an internal battle, and then there’s actual external circumstances that make you engage in battle. Hopefully, with the next generation so my daughters’ generation, even less of that is going to be present because of what we’ve gone through and stood up for.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: Yeah, definitely, you have those moments, and you sold your [44:22]. I’d say I still think that I’m – being a scientist that is yet to hit tenure. I go up for tenure in six years. I still have to prove myself. Even after that, I still will want to be like this is the research I’ve done. The science is good. That’s what I want is to be known as somebody who does good science.
Tanya: What do you think is important to talk about that we haven’t yet talked about?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: You don’t need to have a specific background to go into science. I think that’s one thing that I – my parents, neither of them were scientists. I have no scientists in my family. I’m the only PhD in my family. My mom went to college, and she was a schoolteacher. My dad was in the Marines and went straight into working for IBM. He worked there for 38 years. My family wasn’t in lab science. It didn’t really occur to me that much. I grew up with my parents telling me, pretty much, you can do anything.
That idea of being able to really – you can go into science. You can look for – I didn’t go to any of these science camps or anything like that as a kid. It doesn’t matter. Enjoy yourself. Find something that you enjoy doing, and if you enjoy doing science, then do science, be that going to graduate school and getting a PhD, or going straight into the research sector out of your undergraduate. There are so many amazing careers in science, and if you want to be there, then you can be there.
Tanya: It’s amazing how one internship when you were in high school changed the – shaped the path that you’re on now. It’s amazing.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: Yeah, that was my friend from high school. The internship was in college. Yeah, it was early on in college, so it was after my sophomore year of college.
Tanya: Oh, that’s great. Kaitlyn, thank you for so much for taking the time to be with us today and for sharing all the incredible things that you’re working on and, really, your journey as a trailblazer in the science field, and I just want to wish you very, very good luck as you endeavor to lead your own lab in a few weeks or even next week and just really honored that you took the time to be with us.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: Yeah, I appreciate being invited to come on this podcast. It’s been great chatting with you. I’m really excited what the field’s doing. I think that, as a collective, we across all these institutions really can make a difference.
Tanya: That’s amazing. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, how would they do that? What’s the best way?
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: I would say that, the best way, you can reach me on Twitter. That’s probably going to be my most public-facing platform, @kaysadtler.
Tanya: Okay, awesome. Thank you so much.
Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler: Great, thank you so much.
Announcement: Unmessable is recorded in the heart of New York City, and a special thanks to all the team involved in producing the show. Visit tanyaprive.com/unmessable to find a transcript of this episode, and be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.