By Contributing Writer - February 04, 2022
Karen E. Knudsen’s career has evolved in an interesting way that has served her well as the CEO of the American Cancer Society, a global grassroots force of 1.5 million volunteers, and its advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
Her early interest in science led to earning an undergraduate degree in biology from the George Washington University while thinking she would follow a path to medical school. She landed a fellowship at NIH/NCI-Frederick Cancer Research Center where she worked on retrotransposons, specifically Ty1 retrotransposons in yeast. Because of the emergence of HIV, the work had translational relevance and helped provide a better understanding of retroviruses.
"Knowing when to say ‘no,’ especially as you start to kind of climb the ranks of academia, is key."- Karen E. Knudsen, MBA, Ph.D., CEO of the American Cancer Society
This experience led to a redirection as she decided to pursue her doctorate in biological sciences at the University of California, San Diego, where she followed her passion of working in yeast genetics. As a graduate student she cloned the rad1 gene, a cell cycle checkpoint gene, and for her, this initiated her study of DNA damage response and cell cycle control, work that transitioned her scientific interests to human cancer cell biology.
Her postdoctoral fellowship at Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research aligned to the needs of the human population as she worked to understand the link between hormone action and cell cycle. While there she put together a pathway of how hormones connect to the cell cycle and drive it, as well as the processes intervened upon when therapeutic intervention can be given.
From there she started her own lab in the Department of Cell & Cancer Biology, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, in her first faculty position.
Karen E. Knudsen, MBA, Ph.D., serves as chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society and its advocacy affiliate the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
Prior to joining the American Cancer Society, Knudsen served as executive vice president of Oncology Services and enterprise director for Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson Health. She also served as president for the Association of American Cancer Institutes, an important voice in advocating for funding for cancer research and access to care, including patient access to research innovations.
She serves on the board of advisors for the National Cancer Institute and on 12 external advisory boards for NCI-designated cancer centers, including Moffitt Cancer Center. She is an active member of several committees with the American Society of Clinical Oncology. She previously was on the board of directors of the American Association for Cancer Research.
Knudsen has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the George Washington University; a doctorate in biological sciences from the University of California San Diego; and an MBA from Temple University Fox School of Business.
She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, Brian Costello, and their two children, Dylan, 22, and Liam, 17.
Over the years, Knudsen held numerous academic positions involved in scientific research and clinical trials in which she worked closely with various oncologists, loving the multidisciplinary components of the work.
Ultimately, she was named director of Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in Philadelphia and executive vice president of oncology services in a system covering two states. As the hospital system grew, Knudsen realized the need for a better way to conduct mergers and acquisitions in the health care arena and pursued her MBA from Temple University Fox School of Business.
More recently at what she thought was the height of her career, the American Cancer Society offered her the chief executive officer position.
She recently joined Moffitt Cancer Center as the guest speaker for the Women in Oncology’s 6th annual event and discussed “Combining the Business and Science of Oncology to Combat Cancer: One person’s journey.”
Here Knudsen shares her insights with women faculty members.
What advice would you give young women faculty who want to grow their career?
Find your multidisciplinary team, especially if you’re interested in translation. If you’re a basic scientist, who’s your clinical partner? Who’s your clinical soulmate that’s going to let you know — right now — what are the challenges in the clinical setting? If your work requires large data sets, who’s your computational partner? Who’s the catalytic person that you’re going to work with, in order to get the job done so that you can go faster? And also looking beyond the walls of your own organization is key. Know that your partners don’t have to be in your department, and they don’t have to be in your building. The world has gotten smaller through technology.
Would you talk a little bit about the importance of having a good mentor?
A mentor is someone who tells you the hard truth, who tries to set you on the right path and makes suggestions to provide development opportunities for you, to give you honest, objective feedback aligned to the goals of what you want and to help you articulate those goals. The person essentially is the one who is the wind at your back and also the mirror in front of you to help you see yourself objectively. Women often undervalue themselves, so sometimes a mentor needs to be the one to tell you that what you accomplished was impactful and awesome — that’s what I mean by the mirror — but also as the wind at your back to say, “Let’s go do even more.” Sponsors, equally important, often can be a different person who is looking for opportunities for you.
What does translational research mean to you?
Translational science to me is absolutely 100% a continuum. Framing what it is that you’re going to model in the laboratory toward something that has clinical relevance doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s got a clear view to translation, but rather something that has clinical relevance that could help people if successful. To me that’s the reverse translation and then translational component. I really enjoy seeing that discovery make it to the clinical trial or the intervention that can make a difference. There’s nothing greater than that feeling of seeing your idea from concept to implementation.
You have both scientific and business training. How important is business training for one entering medicine or science?
I’m very glad for having business training, although it was not initially planned. At Jefferson and beyond, it is altogether infrequent for the scientific and clinical leaders to have business training, yet even basic business acumen is so valuable. That core competency can help people who want to go to into pharma and certainly will be enabling for affecting change in the academic setting. I would personally recommend developing core competencies in business (e.g., financial literacy, understanding competitive forces, strategic planning and change management) for anyone thinking about a future leadership role.
What qualities do you think are important for a woman to succeed, especially in oncology whether she’s a clinician or a researcher?
The journey is different for every person. In my own experience, finding ways to shut down the voices of doubt (internal and external) has been important. In addition, having a really good, grounded sense of self, complemented with a strong mentor, is highly enabling. When both you and your close mentor feel like you should go in a certain direction, go for it!
Also knowing when to say “no,” especially as you start to kind of climb the ranks of academia, is key. Every year, redefine your priorities, asking yourself if what you are doing aligns with your priorities and also how you can align your priorities to be a good steward for your organization. And while being a good steward to your organization, also find the balance between being a good steward and self-sacrifice. This is important, and only you can determine this.