Honored scientist reviews her journey

Harford woman to speak at women's history event

February 16, 2003|By Jennifer Blenner | Jennifer Blenner,SUN STAFF

Jennifer Weeks Sekowski of Forest Hill has accomplished what few have by their early 30s: She has made breakthrough discoveries in science, won numerous awards and has a loving family. And because of her many accomplishments, she has been selected to be a speaker at the 19th annual Women's History Month luncheon March 2 in Edgewood.

"I feel really blessed," she said. "I've been able to accomplish everything that I wanted."

It was at college that her interest in science flourished. She attended University of Pennsylvania, where she studied neuroscience and did some research. She went on to the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where she received her doctoral degree in cellular and molecular biology.

She was one of the recipients of a predoctoral fellowship to do breast cancer research. "It fell into my lap," she said. "I was doing DNA replication." She always wondered what made breast cancer cells more prone to make mutations in DNA, she added.

Through her research she made a breakthrough discovery about the mechanism of breast cancer. "We found a protein called PCNA that is uniquely altered in breast cancer cells," she said.

In 1998, she co-founded the company Minerva Pharmaceuticals in Baltimore to raise capital to develop this discovery. She said the goal was to develop a test to diagnose breast cancer earlier.

She is now a consultant to the company, which is raising money and developing antibodies against this unique form of PCNA.

In 2000, she became a molecular toxicologist at the Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, where she studies the effects of low-level environmental chemicals.

"Basically, I met my current boss through a collaboration at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. My boss was looking for someone with skills like mine," Sekowski said. She said working for the Army gives her an opportunity to give back to the country and do further research to help soldiers and civilians.

Two years after taking the job, she was nominated by ECBC for the Ten Outstanding Young Americans award. She was selected as one of the best, brightest and most inspirational leaders in America. Those winners were then placed into another pool for Ten Outstanding Young People. She won this award as well for her scientific, entrepreneurial and community service.

"When I applied for it, I never thought I had a chance," she said. "Other people had done such incredible things."

In her free time, Sekowski volunteers for Kids and Chemistry, a scientific-outreach program. She and other scientists bring hands-on experiments to 9- to 12-year-olds in Harford County elementary schools.

"The goal is to show science is fun and that scientists are real people and that they come in all different shapes and sizes," Sekowski said.

Her other joy in life comes when she walks in the door from work every day to see her son, Noah, 3, and daughter, Eva, 1. She said having children is challenging, but her husband, Daniel, takes care of the children so she can continue to work.

"I don't have to take time away from work, and it has forced me to become more efficient at work," she said.

Sekowski credits her success in life to her family. "My parents ... taught me to do what I want to do and do what I believe in," she said.

When she was 5, her family moved from Argonne Drive in Baltimore to Harford County to live on a small farm. "It was a really good place to grow up," she said.

Through the years, her parents have fueled her interest in science. Sekowski said her mother, Natalie, is a naturalist who showed her the leaves on trees and taught her how to identify birds in the forest.

Her parents were also supportive in her education, she said, sending her to Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore.

"It was an incredible school, and there were many influential teachers who fostered my interest in biology," she said, especially her biology teacher, Elizabeth Thompson.

Sekowski said she felt like she had a split life because her school life was in the city and her home life was in the country.

"It was a fun way to grow up because I had the best of both worlds," she said. "It opened my eyes to both possibilities."

In the next five years, she hopes to make more important discoveries, expand her Kids and Chemistry program and continue to find balance in her life.

The Women's History Month Luncheon will be held from 12:15 p.m. to 4 p.m. March 2 at the Richlin Ballroom, 1700 Van Bibber Road, Edgewood. The cost is $20. Reservations must be made by Feb. 24. Karen Tegges, 410-638-4444.

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