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Leaving a Legacy: Dr. Andrea M. Mastro

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It all began nearly 60 years ago, in a high school in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania when the future Dr. Andrea Mastro decided to pursue a life of science, resulting in a 42 year legacy at Penn State University.

Dr. Mastro grew up in the small town of Coraopolis Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, and there her interest in science was first sparked.  While in attendance at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, an all-female Catholic high school, her biology teacher Sister Pulcheria led her down the path to what would result in an extraordinary career.

At that time, the science center of Pittsburgh was the Buhl Planetarium and as the fifth largest planetarium in the United States it served as the leader in local science outreach and hosted many large youth science fairs. Although the fairs were thought to be only for large school participation, Sister Pulcheria was passionate about her students, including Dr. Mastro, encouraging students to get involved. That passion led to student success as Dr. Mastro and her fellow classmates won many of the awards and prizes. The way that Sister Pulcheria approached and engaged her students made a young Andrea Mastro feel confident that women could participate in science fairs and that women could most definitely pursue a career in science.

When it came time for Dr. Mastro to continue her education and apply for college acceptance, it was again Sister Pulcheria who played a vital role. Utilizing her connections, Sister Pulcheria reached out to the Head of Biology at Carlow University in Pittsburgh. Through that contact, Dr. Mastro was invited to work in the lab as a work study student and later went on to receive her Bachelors of Science Degree from Carlow University. Following her undergraduate work, Dr. Mastro began applying for Graduate school and during that process first experienced gender bias and stereotypes that existed for women in the field of science.  During an interview with a male professor from the University of Pittsburgh for a position that, based upon her work, she was a shoe-in for, she was informed of the expectations of her as a woman in science- get her graduate degree, get married, have kids and never do any science again.

Due to that narrow-minded viewpoint, Dr. Mastro decided to look elsewhere for employment including positions at Cornell, but eventually came to Penn State due to on-going research by a Penn State professor in the field of cellular biology.  When Dr. Mastro arrived on campus to work with Dr. Wesley Hymer he did not mention anything about her being a woman.  He simply showed her the lab, her desk and treated her like anyone else, as a part of the team.  She was funded by the National Defense Educational Act or a National Science Foundation Fellowship for her entire graduate career.

Upon earning her Ph.D. in biology at Penn State she secured a Damon Runyon Postdoctoral Fellowship with the University of Wisconsin at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research under the direction of Dr. G. C. Mueller from 1971 – 1973.  From 1973 – 1975 Dr. Mastro served as a Research Fellow at The Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratory in London, England and in 1974 she served as Visiting Scientist and Lecturer, at the Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, Institut fur Experimentelle Pathologie in Heidelberg Germany.

In 1975 Dr. Mastro came back to Penn State this time as a Research Associate in the Biophysics Department.  Her husband, Dr. William D. Taylor, was a professor at Penn State in the Biophysics Department and Penn State’s policy was to not have married tenured faculty working in the same department.  Eventually the Biochemistry, BioPhysics and Microbiology Departments would all be merge into the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department.

In 1979 Dr. Mastro became an Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Cell Biology and in 1983 she became an Associate Professor of Microbiology and Cell Biology.  Dr. Mastro recalls starting at Penn State when the department was much more “male.” One vivid memory was a meeting with her male colleagues who assumed that she was Dr. Christine Pootjes, the only other woman in the Microbiology department.  When she corrected them they said, “Oh, you’re the other one.”

In 1987 Dr. Mastro accepted the role of Associate Director of the Center for Cell Research, one of NASA’s Centers for the Commercial Development of Space.  Dr. Wesley Hymer was the Director, and throughout its duration the program specifically focused on the study of the physiological effects of space travel.  Highlights of the Center's projects include several industry-funded space experiments, including projects carried out on space shuttle and sounding rocket missions.  In 1988 Dr. Mastro was made a Full Professor in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department and from 2001 – 2010 was the Director of the Immunomodulation Core, a General Clinical Research Center funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Throughout her career, Dr. Mastro recalled the many people and institutions that helped her along the way: Dr. Carol Gay, Dr. Danny Welch, Hershey (which eventually became the Hershey Cancer Institute) and Women in Cancer Research.  When Dr. Mastro began her career she did not have experience in bone research but with the assistance of Dr. Carol Gay, her knowledge grew which in turn allowed her research to flourish. In addition, the Hershey based Dr. Danny Welch gathered a group of individuals with an interest in bone metastasis. Over the years, that group continued to grow and Dr. Mastro credits the group with being extremely influential on her career.

The formation of Women in Cancer Research is another landmark memory for Dr. Mastro. At an American Association for Cancer Research National Meeting, a woman scientist from Fox Chase, Lila Diamond, pulled together young female researchers to discuss the absence of female speakers when half of the participants at the meeting were women. Not long after, Women in Cancer Research formed assuring that female members of the science community get the opportunity to speak at conferences and meetings. As a founding member of Women in Cancer Research, Dr. Mastro served as Vice President and President of the National Organization in 1989 and 1990 respectively. The organization’s growth and positive impact in the field of cancer research caught the attention of the American Association of Cancer Research who officially added it as a constituency group. From now on, when you sign up to be a member of the American Association of Cancer Research you can also sign up to be a member of Women in Cancer Research.

Dr. Andrea Mastro has to date 149 published papers, 212 published abstracts and letters, mentored 24 graduate students, 8 postdoctoral fellows, 19 research assistants and 134 undergraduate independent research students. In addition, she has received many honors and awards such as being recognized by her undergraduate college Carlow University, receiving the Daniel R. Tershak Memorial Teaching Award and the Research Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health and being elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Although Dr. Mastro has made an immense mark on the field of Cancer Research she will tell you that her greatest achievements and her greatest impact comes from the students she has trained who now have exciting and impactful careers influencing next generations of scientists. When she was a Postdoctoral Fellow, she was told that she would have to teach no matter where she worked, to which she would reply “yeah, but that won’t be so bad.” 42 years later Dr. Mastro states that “teaching was an incredibly impactful part of my career.”

Anand Iyer, a Graduate Student of Dr. Mastro who received his Ph. D. in 1984 and is the Founder/Managing Director of APRUS Bio-Medical Innovations, said “She was calm, considerate and really a collegiate mentor who mentored me through some of the most difficult times of my life.”

Dr. Mastro and her past and present students at her retirement ceremony

Dr Mastro with many of her past and present students at her retirement ceremony

Deborah Grove, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Mastro’s lab from 1984-1996 and the retired Director of the Genomics Core Facility at Penn State recalled a tough time at the beginning of her career that caused her to consider leaving science. It was Dr. Mastro’s mentoring that made all the difference in her career- “She treated me with respect and she treated me as a colleague and I regained my self-esteem.  I learned how to do science better: how to set up an experiment and how to analyze the results.”

Karen Bussard, a Graduate Student of Dr. Mastro who received her Ph. D. in 2008, commented that “Without her and her guidance, I would absolutely not be where I am today in my scientific career. Dr. Mastro saw the potential in me, and helped shape me into the thoughtful, insightful, patient and compassionate investigator I am today.” When recently speaking with Dr. Mastro about mentoring strategies, Dr. Mastro explained to Bussard that “your successes are my successes” further demonstrating the commitment to her students to prepare them for the future.

In addition to her academic and research career, Dr. Mastro is a loving wife to her husband Dr. William D. Taylor and a mother to three children Maria, Daniel and Tim.  The youngest of her children is now 24 years old. Two are Penn State Alumni and one is a senior at Southern Oregon University.

When asked about her plans after retirement she said she would like to visit her relatives in Italy who she has never met.  She also thinks that she should probably clean out her house after all that has accumulated over the last 40 years. Whatever is next for Dr. Mastro, the Penn State Community wishes her all the best.

Thank you Dr. Mastro for the impact your research has made as well as your dedication to, and the impact you have had on, Penn State and the many students whose lives you have influenced!