In a quiet lab in downtown Birmingham, a team of scientists are engaged on the front lines of one of the world’s most deadly battles — the battle against cancer.
Right at the center of that war is Dr. Rebecca Boohaker.
As an assistant fellow in the oncology department at Southern Research, an organization that has already been involved in the discovery of seven FDA-approved cancer drugs, Boohaker’s lab continues to build upon that success through a commitment to creating generational change within the science community and beyond.
Founded in 1941, Southern Research (SR) is an independent, nonprofit, scientific research organization with more than 400 scientists and engineers. SR supports the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, defense, aerospace, environmental and energy industries through the pursuit of entrepreneurial and collaborative initiatives to develop and maintain a pipeline of intellectual property and innovative technologies that positively impact real-world problems.
Solving real-world problems is what fuels Dr. Boohaker. What began as a love for research, quickly developed into a passion after she became directly impacted by the cruel effects of cancer when her grandmother and aunt were both diagnosed.
Like so many others, she watched as the diagnosis changed their lives in ways she wouldn’t wish on anyone. Her grandmother worked through a “brutal,” yet successful, treatment plan, but her aunt lost her life to breast cancer several years after her original diagnosis due to a lack of advancement in treatment at the time.
Dr. Boohaker recalls those experiences shaping her career path in a meaningful way.
“Thankfully, my grandmother lived a long life into her 90s without recurrence,” she said. “But after my aunt’s passing, my research shifted from basic science to a disease-based approach. That tragedy gave purpose to everything we were doing in the lab. In my capacity as a cancer biologist working in drug discovery, I have learned that understanding why something is broken – a pathway, a protein, a gene – is so critical in the rational design of the fix.”
Dr. Boohaker’s love for science began in early childhood. Rather than playing with dolls and coloring books, she recalls her mother and aunt equipping her with pocket microscopes and chemistry sets.
Her interest in science grew when she had the opportunity to learn from Dr. John Kearney as a student at John Carroll High School. Dr. Kearney said, “I’d say that what struck me the most was that Rebecca had a very well-developed work ethic at a very early age/career stage.”
Dr. Boohaker’s experiences in the John Carroll lab led her to study biology and chemistry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and later obtain her graduate degree from the University of Central Florida.
Dr. Boohaker joined Southern Research in 2013 to complete her postdoctoral fellowship. In 2016, she became a research scientist in the Oncology Department within the Drug Discovery division. She is currently interested in investigating the processes by which cancer cells exploit their own regulatory machinery to promote tumorigenesis as a means to develop novel therapeutics.
For Boohaker, diversity is a crucial element for success.
“That’s where my success in my education and career has come from: working in a diverse environment where multiple perspectives contribute to solutions. So many of my experiences, from learning under the great Ada Long at the UAB University Honors Program to working at Southern Research, have been reinforced by a philosophy that different perspectives open the door to better solutions,” she shared with Yellowhammer News.
Art Tipton, Southern Research president and CEO, said about Dr. Boohaker, “Rebecca is emerging as a significant oncology scientist for Southern Research as part of our notable cancer research efforts. The discovery of seven FDA-approved cancer drugs cemented SR as a national and global resource in this field and I am enthusiastic about the role Rebecca is playing to further our ongoing advancements. Her research program, interests and accomplishments without a doubt make her one of our state’s Women of Impact and I am proud to have her as part of our organization.”
When asked about her personal life, she shared about the joys of teaching an annual immunology class at John Carroll and preserving time for her family with a special beach trip each summer. She applied to the NASA astronaut program making it all the way to the second tier but says rejection from NASA was the “coolest rejection letter” she’s ever received.
In her spare time, Dr. Boohaker said she enjoys the Star Wars franchise and even builds lightsabers as a hobby.
“Carrie Fisher is a personal hero and Princess Leia is the best Disney Princess,” Boohaker stated.
Reflecting on the notion of making an impact in our community, Dr. Boohaker mentioned her gratitude for several people who made an impact on her life, saying, “When I think about the women of impact in my own life, I think of my mother and her sisters who all immigrated to the U.S. and found success through their own determination, and their willingness to outwork anyone.”
“I also think of the late Janet Houghton, a pioneer in cancer research and a woman of impact in her own right, who came to Southern Research in 2016 and was so supportive of me and my fledgling career – so supportive that she essentially willed her lab to me before her passing. If I were to try to encapsulate the traits of these women that I emulate, I would say that a Woman of Impact is persistent in the pursuit of a goal and maintains a vision of positive change to her community in achieving that goal,” she told Yellowhammer News.
Dr. Boohaker wishes to share some inspirational words with the next generation of leaders following in her footsteps: “Whether or not it’s in the classroom, any opportunity to learn has value, and even in failure, when the path to success isn’t always clear, there is always a way to a solution.”
Yellowhammer News is proud to name Dr. Rebecca Boohaker a 2019 Woman of Impact.
The 2nd Annual Women of Impact Awards will celebrate the honorees on April 29, 2019, in Birmingham. Event details can be found here.