Cancer Researcher Mary J.C. Hendrix, PhD, Returns to West Virginia to Lead Her Alma Mater

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Mary J.C. Hendrix, PhD

Mary J.C. Hendrix, PhD

Nationally regarded melanoma researcher Mary J.C. Hendrix, PhD, was born in La Jolla, California, a seaside community surrounded by ocean bluffs and beaches within the city of San Diego. She was reared in a Navy family that moved from the West Coast to the East Coast during her childhood, eventually settling in West Virginia. Dr. Hendrix told The ASCO Post there were four major influences in her life that have stood her in good stead to this day, starting with her paternal grandfather who, as a surgeon in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, used to take her on house calls.

Early Influences

“My grandfather would take me on his house calls of patients who were too ill to travel. When we left a patient’s home, I would invariably ask him what caused the illness. He often would tell me that medical science just didn’t have sufficient research to determine the cause of the illness. That left an indelible impression on me, which led to my belief that we had to do more to find causes and cures for devastating illnesses.”

Dr. Hendrix’s father, Captain Charles Hendrix, was a World War II hero, serving on submarines. After the war, he worked at the Office of Naval Research, trying to advance the notion that the United States needed better evidence-based understanding of the dangers within the unchartered areas of the world’s oceans to prevent disasters, such as submarine collisions with underwater mountains. He presaged such catastrophes in a famous article titled The Depths of Ignorance, in which a U.S. nuclear attack submarine collided with an uncharted seamount.

Dr. Hendrix shared her memories of this event: “I remember news crews traveling to our home to interview my father when two U.S. subs—Thrasher and Scorpion—collided with undersea mountains and imploded. The reporters wondered whether my father was psychic, because this is exactly what he’d predicted would happen. He eventually returned to his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was instrumental in advancing the institution’s oceanography department to focus, in part, on the issue of our ignorance of deep-sea topography. Following his death, the Academy established the Hendrix Oceanography Award in his honor.”

Dr. Hendrix also cited her mother as an influence in her life. She worked as an administrative assistant on Capitol Hill. When the family relocated to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, a town overlooking the Potomac River, Dr. Hendrix’s mother joined the staff of Shepherd University, where she worked tirelessly for more than 30 years. “I loved watching her perform on a daily basis; her work ethic and dedication to perfection were something I’ve always tried to emulate,” said Dr. Hendrix.

If the opportunity to lead a professional society comes along, which has in my career, jump at it. It’s a situation that gives you the power of the collective voices in your profession.
— Mary J.C. Hendrix, PhD

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The last of Dr. Hendrix’s early career-changing influences centered on her postdoctoral mentor, the late Elizabeth Hay, MD, former Head of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Hendrix noted: “She was an extraordinary scientist and an unbelievable role model who taught me to be an active citizen scientist. In other words, you don’t sit around and complain about things; instead you get involved with policymakers and network and come up with solutions. And if the opportunity to lead a professional society comes along, which has in my career, jump at it. It’s a situation that gives you the power of the collective voices in your profession. And I’ll tell you, we’ve moved some mountains in Washington, DC.”

College at 16

Asked about her decision on an undergraduate school, Dr. Hendrix explained that her choice was preordained by circumstances beyond her control. “I attended St. Joseph’s Catholic High School, which closed in my senior year due to budgetary issues. I was barely 16 but had enough credits to graduate, so my mother, who was working at Shepherd University, convinced the president that I was mature enough to attend; and lo and behold, he gave me a chance. Of course, I wanted to get the full college experience and so persuaded my parents to let me live on campus in a dorm. Well, that lasted one night. I was a serious student and really wasn’t cut out for the dorm party scene. But they took a chance and it turned out to be a great experience, so that’s one of the reasons I’m back here at Shepherd University serving as President.”

While at Shepherd, Dr. Hendrix was mentored by the late biology professor Paul Saab, who let Dr. Hendrix pursue research projects as an undergraduate. “If I came up with a research question, he’d ask how he could help. To be given the freedom to pursue little research projects as an undergrad was like living a dream at the time. In fact, we are currently fundraising for the Paul Saab Memorial Laboratory. His belief in me helped accelerate my career at such an early age,” commented Dr. Hendrix.

A Career Path Is Formed

After earning her PhD at George Washington University, Dr. Hendrix went to Harvard Medical School for her postdoctoral fellowship; there she learned how to use antibodies as research tools to address important developmental biology questions. “Because I was a gross anatomist, I taught at the Harvard medical labs, and some of the doctors there asked me to give a couple of lectures. That was such a big deal; I was a baby postdoc, and here I was teaching at Harvard.”

After leaving Harvard, Dr. Hendrix moved to the University of Arizona, to take what she described as her “first real faculty position.” She ascended the ranks from Assistant Professor to Associate Head Professor of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology. “It was in Arizona where my life’s career path was formed. The Tucson area had the nation’s highest incidence of metastatic melanoma, and I wanted to set up my lab and try to make a difference in this disease. My passion for cancer research began in Arizona.”

Science Meets Politics

It was also in Arizona that she had her first taste of science meets politics. “I was appointed by Governor Bruce Babbitt to be a commissioner of the Arizona Disease Control Research Commission, which was formed based on a sin tax on alcohol and tobacco that the commission could use to fund researchers in Arizona who focused on specific diseases. My job was to make sure the grant review process was fair. It was very exciting to step into the bigger public health–care arena,” said Dr. Hendrix.

After Arizona, Dr. Hendrix spent 2 years as Director of the Pediatric Research Institute at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, where she was recruited to oversee the building of the new institute and to hire the research staff. “The funding didn’t work out, and I moved to the University of Iowa, which was an extraordinary place. I was Head of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the Carver College of Medicine and Deputy Director of the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center. I was elected as President of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which consisted of more than 100,000 researchers. I flew almost each week to DC to work with members of Congress to discuss issues that affected research. One of the huge issues at the time was human embryonic stem cell research. I was asked to testify before Congress regarding the importance of federal government funding for this research. Prior to my testimony, we were held in the green room and told that there were death threats against us. It was a difficult fight, and, to this day, I’m proud that I was part of it.”

Dr. Hendrix continued: “At the time, Iowa became anti–stem cell research, and I moved my lab to Illinois at Northeastern University, which was featured on CNN. It was there that I had the privilege of working with then Senator Barack Obama on stem cell legislation. It was a remarkable experience. He was able to handle controversial subjects with all the stakeholders and bring people who disagreed with each other to the table.”

Dr. Hendrix remained at Northwestern, running her research laboratory until 2016, when she moved to West Virginia to become the 16th President of Shepherd University. “During my time at Northwestern, we made some noteworthy advances in stem cell research, comparing them to cancer stem cells. We came up with a fundamental discovery that has led to a novel cancer therapy for which we have 10 patents. I chair a startup company board built around those patents, and it is focused on using a humanized antibody to target an important cancer stem cell–signaling molecule.”

Excellence, Innovation, Opportunity, and Training

I serve on a number of professional boards, which gives me a global perspective of how we can work together in a collaborative manner toward a better environment for doing biomedical research.
— Mary J.C. Hendrix, PhD

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Asked to describe a day in the life at her current position, Dr. Hendrix responded: “I focus on the business of running a university where we have a theme of excellence, innovation, opportunity, and training the next generation of leaders and model citizens. We are about an hour and a half away from Washington, DC, which gives us the opportunity to have a lot of interactions with people on Capitol Hill. In addition to running the university and my lab, I serve on a number of professional boards, which gives me a global perspective of how we can work together in a collaborative manner toward a better environment for doing biomedical research.”

How does Dr. Hendrix decompress? “At the end of each day, I put on classical music YouTube videos, called the brain power selection. On the weekends, I swim, and every morning I’m on an elliptical stepper looking like I’m in a foot race. I also love what I do, which helps as well.” 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Hendrix reported no conflicts of interest.