Amber Kaplan, PhD
Chief Scientific Officer, NKMax America
AWIS Sustaining Member since 2011
“Now, as I lead and mentor younger scientists, I try to foster an environment where everyone puts forward questions, interrogating the science at every level.”
What’s the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned and how has it proven invaluable?
“Question everything.” This was at the heart of what my undergraduate mentor tried to teach me. And you shouldn’t wait to be senior or recognized in your field to participate in the questions. A good argument can be articulated by anyone if the reasoning behind it is solid enough. Unfortunately, in science sometimes, we equate seniority or reputation for a well-reasoned argument. Now, as I lead and mentor younger scientists, I try to foster an environment where everyone puts forward questions, interrogating the science at every level.
What do you aspire to accomplish in your career and why?
As a scientist, I hope to be truly interdisciplinary, someone who can move fluidly from the small-scale (molecular and cellular) to the medium-scale (individual patients), all the way up to the large-scale (ecological and evolutionary) aspects of the immune response as it relates to human disease. As a member of the scientific community, I strive to be a good mentor to aspiring scientists and participate at the local and national levels on initiatives to further women and minorities in science.
How has AWIS helped you professionally and/or personally?
I first heard about AWIS in 2010, as a doctoral student in Los Angeles at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. We didn’t have an AWIS chapter on campus, so I was fortunate enough to get in contact with the local area chapter president, Tracy Blois, who helped me figure out how to get our own little group going. Tracy was a great mentor and remains an awesome friend. I was excited to learn that our graduate program wanted to sponsor our monthly AWIS coffee hour as well as additional speakers and programming we were able to arrange. Quite frankly, I’m really proud that the Cedars-Sinai Graduate Program has continuously supported the on-campus AWIS group since its inception in 2011. I have benefited substantially from AWIS over the years via publications (the mentoring book is amazing, and everyone should own it!), stories I’ve read on the website, as well as friends and colleagues I’ve met through AWIS events. It’s hard to fully articulate how much AWIS has helped me, but I do believe joining in graduate school has been pivotal for my career.
Tell us more about your professional journey.
My fascination with biology began quite young; as a child, I spent my time exploring and collecting things in the woods of southern Alaska. I began my research career in the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. The first lab I joined was the evolutionary genetics laboratory of Dr. William Rice where for a year I gained a solid background in evolutionary theory, studying how fruit flies transmit genetic traits to their young. I spent the next four years in the ecological parasitology lab of Dr. Armand Kuris conducting lab and field research, studying a variety of animal and human parasites, and learning much about the dynamics of disease transmission. During my PhD, in the lab of Dr. David Underhill at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, my research dealt with the host immune response to bacterial and fungal pathogens. Having delved into the host response to infection during my PhD, I next focused on a post-doctoral fellowship in a bacterial genetics lab, that of Dr. Jeff Miller at UCLA, to gain insight into bacterial virulence gene regulation. After my post-doc, I decided to go on sabbatical from academia and currently work as an immunologist in biotech.