By Katie Cobian

In 2009, I was one of twelve participants in the San Diego Oncofertility Saturday Academy.  Entering the program as a rising high school sophomore, I had no idea what to expect from the program; in fact, I barely knew what the word ‘oncofertility’ meant.  Little did I know the impact this one summer would have on the rest of my life.  This one summer gave me an unexpected sense of belonging in the scientific community.  This one summer taught me lessons far beyond the confines of the lab.  This one summer introduced me to many of the most inspirational people I have ever met.  This one summer changed my life forever.  It’s not everyday that a fourteen-year-old comes across such a life-directing experience; I am so lucky it happened to me.

Fast-forward five years.  I’m currently a rising junior at the University of Notre Dame.  Because of my involvement with the Oncofertility Academy, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Endocrine Society Meeting in Chicago earlier this summer.  I was assigned many mentors during the conference—scientists from all over the U.S., including members of the Woodruff Lab.  My first day at the conference was overwhelming.  I was made aware that there were 10,000 attendees at the meeting this year—a number difficult to comprehend.  The intellectual energy was high in every room at the conference center.  As clinical practitioners and basic scientists sat in the same rooms together, there was dynamic sense of collaboration.  More impressive to me, however, was Dr. Teresa Woodruff, President of the Endocrine Society.  It was Dr. Woodruff who led the masses every morning and made appearances at all the major events.  And though she was clearly the busiest and most demanded person at the conference, she still took the time to meet and interact with eager undergraduates dying to shake the hand of a true inspiration.

One afternoon after visiting lectures on the challenge of preserving the fertility of cancer patients, I visited a poster session that contained the work of thousands of labs from all over the world.  As I walked through the reproductive endocrinology section, I was shocked to run into a very familiar face: that of Dr. Chang from our very own San Diego Oncofertility Academy.  In conversation with Dr. Chang, I couldn’t help but think about how much we have discovered about the world, but simultaneously, how many new questions arise with every new discovery.  It is this reason, precisely, that I have always been drawn to biological sciences—the sheer magnitude of the field is enough to fuel my interest in the life sciences.   At the conference, I was able to visit posters from the Woodruff Lab and was utterly amazed at the advances that are occurring in the field of oncofertility, including the growth of ovaries in vitro--yet another reminder of the power and innovation that oncofertility represents.

In addition to attending the conference’s daily scheduled events, I was given the opportunity to attend the Women in Endocrinology dinner during my time at the conference.  The women that surrounded me at the dinner were inspiring—a true testament to the power and strength of women in science.  They were brilliant, and their stories were powerful.  Leaders in their field, they support each other and celebrate the accomplishments of peers working alongside them.  The room full of glamorously dressed, influential women was an uplifting look into the force that women have become in STEM fields.

After a weekend of high-powered, intellectually stimulating events, I found myself at a more intimate event in Dr. Woodruff’s suite with current and past members of her lab.  Dr. Teresa Woodruff has been my idol since my first introduction to Oncofertility.  Her vision to create a new field of science has always astounded me.  I met Dr. Teresa in person for the first time four years ago on a visit to Northwestern to tour the campus.  She opened the doors of her lab to me and welcomed me with a bright smile and encouraging words.  During this first visit to the Woodruff Lab, I took a series of photos that I still cherish.   While chatting with Dr. Teresa this summer, she shared with me that she still keeps one of those photos on her desk in her office.  At once, I was humbled and filled with pride.

At the event, I was fortunate to rub elbows with the founders and grant-writers vital to oncofertility’s establishment.  Dr. Teresa made her way through the crowd like a superstar—followed by cameras and people anxiously awaiting their chance to chat with her.  But unlike a pop-sensation, Dr. Teresa was down-to-earth and obviously respected by everyone in the room.  Just that morning, I had the honor of witnessing her star power as she spoke to a crowd of six thousand people.  And here she was a few hours later with a heart-warming smile and joyous embraces for the children of her current lab members.  As I left Dr. Teresa’s event that night, she asked me to take a selfie with her so she could place it next the picture on her desk from four years ago.  I was thrilled to take that selfie with one of the most inspirational women in my life.

Dr. Teresa Woodruff has been and will continue to be that source of inspiration as I continue my education in life sciences.  It’s her work and her character that motivate me to work toward my own goal of pursuing a career in science.  I see my life coming full-circle, fulfilling an even greater role in the field that had the power to change the life of a fourteen-year-old, sitting wide-eyed and eager on a summer Saturday morning in San Diego.

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