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Medical Pioneer, Alverno Trustee

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Most students take decades to figure out what career path they want to take. Howard Jacob knew he wanted to attain a Ph.D. in Science when he was just 5 years old.

Jacob, an internationally recognized scientist, is a professor and the director of the Human and Molecular Genetics Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He has been a member of the Alverno College Board of Trustees since June 2009.

"The vast majority of people that I meet in science knew very early that they wanted to be scientists," Jacob said. "If you don’t get a kid interested in science by their sophomore year in high school, you convert very few later on."

Dr. Jacob's road to success

Jacob's career journey began after finishing his undergraduate degree in the early '80s when his goal was to attain a Ph.D. in Marine Biology. At that time, "the only jobs for marine biologists were in hunting Russian submarines and that didn't seem very interesting," he said. Jacob then landed an internship at Abbott Laboratories in the Pharmacology Department.

"That's important because it made me understand the value of doing an internship. It is one of the reasons that I've supported students doing internships for as long as I've had a lab because it had a positive impact on me."

Later in his experience, Jacob started working with Eric Lander, one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project. This connection set the stage for his career.

Women in science

Throughout his career, Jacob noted he has had a predominance of female scientists working in his lab. He has seen firsthand that women have a different series of challenges than men in the sciences.

"The prime time for child raising is also the prime time for career building in academia,"

Jacob said. "That creates a tremendous amount of tension between a woman who would like to be a scientist and would like to be a mother. I've always felt that if you create the right environment and you create the flexibility, yet still have demands for excellence, that you can help women accomplish both goals. That has just been my philosophy from day one."

Medical breakthrough

Just before this past Christmas, Jacob became a pioneer in medicine, leading a team of scientists by using genetic technology to save a 4-year-old boy imperiled by a mysterious disease. The boy's story, deemed "One in a billion: A boy’s life, a medical mystery," won the Pulitzer Prize and details how Jacob became the first scientist to ever completely sequence a human's DNA.

Reflecting on the story, Jacob smiles and says, '"It absolutely changed my life. How does it not change your life to affect an outcome of a child and his family?"

"I just think it is pretty cool to do something for the first time. I always tell my students it is like being Christopher Columbus without the scurvy. No one has ever seen this before. You are the first to look at it and the first to have a chance to think about it. I still find it amazing."