January 13, 2015
By Mary Engel/Fred Hutch News Service
Desert Horse-Grant, director of strategic planning and operations for Solid Tumor Translational Research (STTR) across Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, has been named a “Disruptive Woman to Watch in 2015” by Disruptive Women in Health Care, a group that spotlights women whose achievements and ideas advance and improve health care.
She is in good company. Fellow disrupters include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson and award-winning journalist Maria Shriver. Although many of the women honored work directly in medicine, the group also recognizes women in other fields that can influence health care such as the law, the environment and media, said Robin Strongin, the group’s founder.
In Horse-Grant’s case, the group was “particularly interested in calling out women who work in the area of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics],” Strongin said. “Desert is a really important part of the [STTR] team. What really stood out is the dedication, the hard work, the thoughtfulness that she brings to the group there in the area of cancer.”
Horse-Grant is no stranger to dedication and hard work. She grew up on the Harvard and MIT campuses while her mother, an Oglala Lakota with family on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, studied there. By high school, Horse-Grant received a National Institutes of Health grant to work as an intern at a laboratory at Harvard Medical School. While a student at Stanford University focusing on racial disparities and health policy, she was director of the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program.
She came to Fred Hutch after 13 years at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where she was the administrator and co-founder of a renowned brain cancer program. She led efforts to form new collaborations between physicians and scientists.
That’s the same kind of innovation she’s leading at Fred Hutch, where she moved in 2013 with Dr. Eric Holland, a Hutch senior vice president and director of both the Human Biology Division and STTR, and 10 other members of his Sloan-Kettering team. The vision for STTR is to revolutionize how solid tumors are treated not just in the brain but in nearly a dozen organs, including the breast, colon, head and neck, lung, ovary, pancreas and prostate.
“We bridge people who typically see themselves as cancer researchers and people who don’t,” said Horse-Grant. “Bridging these fields – cancer research, mathematics, computer science, engineering – can speed results.”
Key to the effort is building a first-of-its kind database from reams of raw data on patients and their diseases, upon which investigators and clinicians from the Hutch, UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance can draw. Seattle, Horse-Grant said, is one of the best places in the country to take advantage of advances in machine learning using big data to extract useful information. About 600 people across the partner institutions have experience in computational biology, biostatistics and similar fields, she said.
What’s disruptive about this work? Everything, Horse-Grant said.
“Everything we do is change-agent work,” she said. “We have to figure out how to encourage scientists who may be used to working alone or on science that leads to great insights over a lifetime to instead work at least in part together and on results that are translatable to patients within the next five years. We came here to identify the players, get them to know each other and find resources for them.”
The ability to translate results to patients is a challenge at every institution, Horse-Grant said. She moved to Fred Hutch because of its collaborative culture, which she believes uniquely positions it to be a leader in this area.
“We do everything we do because we know people are sick.” She said. “We work in cancer research. At the end of the day, this is for patients.”
Such passion is vintage Horse-Grant, said Raquel Sanchez, the administrator for the Human Biology Division, who accompanied Horse-Grant to the award ceremony last month in Washington, D.C.
“Attending this conference honoring Desert as a disruptive woman to watch was truly inspiring,” Sanchez said. “Listening to the contributions of women across disciplines and acknowledging Desert’s vision and transformative actions among her peers of prestigious women ignited a sense of limitless possibilities for the future of health care.”