Dr. Mina Bissell, whose work changed how we view cancer and the cells it affects, is one of the strongest women in STEM today.
Born into a highly educated and encouraging family in Tehran, Iran, Bissell excelled in school and won a medal in 1958 for being the top high school student in the entire country.
Bissell, one of five seniors in the country to win a scholarship from Iran to go to college abroad, came to America, a Middle Eastern woman traveling alone, at 18-years-old.
Bissell started at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and after two years transferred to Radcliffe College to stay close to her future husband (a student at Harvard).
In two short years, she won a medal from the American Institute of Chemists for being the top student at Radcliffe, got married and finished her Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry.
She decided to go to graduate school and entered the bacterial genetics program at Harvard (one of only three women in the newly integrated Medical School).
While working on her graduate degree, Bissell had her first child, went through a divorce and married a medical student named Monty Bissell.
Bissell completed her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and accepted a fellowship with the American Cancer Society in 1969. In 1972, Dr. Bissell took a position at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where she still works today.
At the time, many scientists believed cancer is caused by genetic alterations inside a cell, but Bissell showed that a cell’s structure and microenvironment are just as important.
In her early work, Bissell found that increased amounts of glucose could transform normal cells into tumor cells. She also examined the Extracellular Matrix, which provides structure for cells and found that damages to the ECM could cause breast cancer.
Recently, Bissell’s lab found that neighboring healthy cells could destroy cancer cells in the mammary gland.
“No cell is an island. All cells are surrounded by their own unique microenvironment,” Dr. Bissell said at the 2009 American Association for Cancer Research Conference. “It is quite clear that the context in which a cell exists determines what that cell can do.”
She has been the recipient of many honors and achievements, including the 2008 Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society, the 2009 MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health and the 2016 E.B. Wilson Medal (the highest honor given by the American Society of Cell Biology).
She is also a fellow in many associations, including the Royal Society of Chemistry and the National Academy of Sciences. She received an Honorary Doctorate from the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris (2001) and the University of Copenhagen (2004) and even had an award named after her in Portugal (started in 2008, the Mina J. Bissell Award is given every other year to a person who has changed their field).
Bissell has authored more than 380 publications and given more than 130 lectures. She has nine U.S. patents (and many more pending).
Bissell’s accomplishments stand as a reminder of what we can accomplish, even in the face of great trials, if we continue to be strong and believe in ourselves.
Today, Dr. Bissell continues to travel and talk to young scientists about her story, and how they can write their own.
“The reason I still travel and give talks, meet young scientist, and do interviews is that I see young people are inspired by my story of how I persisted,” Dr. Bissell said in an interview with The Scientist in Apr. 2017. “If you are passionate and you have ideas leading to rigorous proof, you need to trust yourself.”
Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Meetings every Friday in the Women’s Center, 12 – 1 pm.