Open science stars: An interview with Dr. Joanne Kamens


Open science is a rapidly evolving field, with a huge diversity of actors involved. We want to highlight some of the superstars helping to spearhead the evolution of scholarly communication, who are real positive forces for change. The first of these is with Joanne Kamens PhD, who currently is the Executive Director for Addgene, a repository for the life sciences. We asked her about open science, the impact this can have on diversity in research, and the value of repositories. Here’s her story!

Hi Joanne! So can you tell us a little bit about your background to get things started?

After graduating University of Pennsylvania I went directly to graduate school in the Harvard Medical School Division of Medical Sciences where I received a PhD in genetics. For you historians, it was the first year that the Division existed allowing students to move around PIs in many departments.  I defended my thesis while 6 months pregnant and had my son while still working in that lab. I had a great mentor in Dr. Roger Brent (now at the Fred Hutchinson Center in Seattle).  I studied transcription using yeast and helped demonstrate that an acidic domain of the Rel protein was activating when brought in proximity to the promoter region. Again for historical perspective, PCR was invented while I was in grad school and I got to beta test the first MJ research PCR machine (M worked on my floor) which had no outsides. Roger Brent’s lab was one of the labs that created the yeast two-hybrid screening system and I have always been a lover of molecular biology technology which serves me well at Addgene.

How does PCR work? (Source)
How does PCR work? (Source)

You’ve won several amazing awards, including the ‘Forty over 40’ award for women who are making an impact, and the ‘PharmaVoice 100 most inspiring’ – what were both of these incredible achievements for?

Both of these awards were a result of good networking and my “giving back” activities.  Colleagues that I had helped in the past nominated me for my work in mentorship and career support for scientists plus being a leader at Addgene.  I honestly can’t remember how I was nominated for the Forty over 40, but it represents an effort to acknowledge women who are doing amazing things as their careers advance.  There are a lot of “30 under 30” type lists and the founders of Forty Over 40 wanted to send a different message. We have a cultural emphasis on youth that leads to implicit biases disproportionately against women (think men with distinguished gray hair vs. grandma personas).  The PharmaVoice award was initiated by two groups of women: women in the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association who I directly mentored or helped via the HBA Group Mentoring program (which l led for 3 years) and second, women in the Massachusetts Chapter of the Association for Women in Science which I founded about 11 years ago. It is the largest chapter in the nation and something I am very proud of.

Organizations like ScienceOpen and Addgene are teaching scientists that sharing can have fantastic positive outcomes.

When did you first hear about ‘open science’ more generally? What did you first think of it all?

I didn’t really know much about it until I started looking into the position at Addgene.  I had just spent 20 years in Pharma and Biotech at quite a distance from academic science. The mission of Addgene spoke to my heart “Accelerate research and discovery by improving access to useful research materials and information.”  I have always been involved in pursuing collaborative projects and have often been stymied by materials not being available. It was not a leap to involve myself in this type of advocacy.

It is just a huge waste of time and energy to reinvent the wheel every time you want to start a study.  We would be discovering more and doing it faster if we had more sharing of data and materials.

Why do you think it’s important for researchers to be open about their research?

It is just a huge waste of time and energy to reinvent the wheel every time you want to start a study.  We would be discovering more and doing it faster if we had more sharing of data and materials.  Addgene as a case study has made this very clear.  Moreover, the reproducibility issues in science make it even more important for studies to be reproduced and extended in different labs.  Open science encourages this type of activity.

On the other hand, I spent 20 years in for profit science and I know what it costs to make life altering drugs.  If no one makes money, no one will make new cures and bringing drugs to market is not something that is done well by academia. We need to find a way to protect intellectual property rights while making the science as open as possible.

Open Science - so much more than just Open Access!
Open Science – so much more than just Open Access! (Source)

What can researchers, industry, and non-profit organisations all do together to encourage a culture of sharing?

Share whenever possible and tell your colleagues you are sharing. There are so many benefits to depositing in repositories (more citations for example) that it is just paying it forward to get others on the bandwagon. Also be reasonable about sharing. It might not be reasonable to ask someone to share a mouse strain before publication that took two years to build, but it is reasonable to share plasmids because each one can make science go a little faster. Data sharing is the only way we are going to make progress on some very serious human diseases since humans are so diverse.  I believe we have an ethical imperative to share human data for research.

Are there any potential downfalls to being open about your research?

Sure, but the advantages almost always outweigh the disadvantages.

Do repositories such as Addgene have a good uptake from relevant research communities?

Addgene was founded in 2004 by Melina Fan, a PhD student at Harvard at the time, her husband, Benjie Chen who is a PhD computer scientist and her brother, Kenneth Fan, who is in finance and business.  I joined Addgene in 2011 replacing Melina as the Executive Director so she could concentrate on the CSO role she now holds at Addgene. They are amazing, forward-looking founders. .  Here’s our current stats (you can find some nice graphs of our growth in the literature). We have over 45,000 plasmids stored from >2,600 contributing labs in 500 institutions.  We distribute over 500 plasmids each day to >5,200 institutions in 85 countries. This is a lot of sharing going on.

Do you think open science encourages broader collaborations within research?

We hear stories about this from our community all the time. Addgene depositors are sometimes surprised when other scientists request their materials. This sharing leads to new scientific relationships and unexpected information sharing. Scientists that deposit can also been seen as “thought leaders” in certain techniques by providing protocols and support via Addgene and via their own lab websites. This encourages other scientists to reach out with ideas, extend the data, suggest ideas to others in their community and add new technical features.

Do you think open science encourages or promotes increased diversity within academia?

Addgene works hard to distribute to scientists wherever they are. We are doing more outreach to Latin America and Africa because we know scientists there don’t know as much about us.  There are scientists everywhere, but they don’t always have what they need. Open repositories can bring scientists from diverse communities together.

There are scientists everywhere, but they don’t always have what they need. Open repositories can bring scientists from diverse communities together.

What can researchers, publishers, and institutes do to help promote a healthier and more diverse workplace within academia?

I have spent the last 20 years actively working on this issue for women in STEM and for other underrepresented groups including due to race, sexual orientation, disability and age.  I will have to let my blogs, talks and content speak for themselves (you can Google me).  Recently I am more often asked to speak about implicit (unconscious) bias and how this affects scientific hiring and career progression. I am currently planning a training workshop on this topic. Unfortunately, implicit bias training is not yet required in universities where so many scientists learn the habits of discrimination that they carry forward in their careers. Overt discrimination is a factor, but the thousand little instances of implicit bias that people are subjected to daily really deal the final blows.  And don’t get me started on outright sexual harassment.  There can be no more silence or cover-ups about this.  Too many good women have been chased from science due to predatory people in their fields.

One of the proven solutions to the challenge of diversity is the availability of strong, positive mentoring relationships. There are some fantastic advisors that are great mentors and there are some that are not. I think it is important for scientists in training to try to choose advisors that will serve as good mentors and seek out other mentors early and often. I support a number of scientist mentoring programs in the Boston area and I have published an eBook called Mentoring 101 for Scientists. The blogs and eBook also highlight peer mentoring as an important model for scientists in training. I hope more scientists will access and use these resources. I have the pleasure of “consulting” for scientist peer mentoring groups around the country and it is one of my most enjoyable activities.

How do you personally view the future of scholarly communication and publishing? And how do you see the role of data within this?

I like journals but I think given the current state of technology we could do much better at using them to accelerate scientific progress. The old fashioned, static, “print” methods section is one of the first things that could be updated. If a scientist deposits a plasmid at Addgene before publication, we hold the data until the paper comes out. Once the paper is released, the plasmid number in the Materials & Methods section is all that is needed to make sure scientists can see the details of the reagent even if those details are updated by our curation systems years later. Similarly, depositing protocols at and inserting the link in the publication instead ensures that a correct, updated protocol will be easily accessible. No journal will publish corrections for details like these and we all know that small errors lead to a lot of wasted time for scientists.

I also believe in the peer review process, but taking anonymity out of peer review is an important next step. I personally have seen this abused many times. If the scientific community were not under such stress for funding and if all scientists were 100% ethical, there wouldn’t be a problem, but this is not true. I’d like to see more credit for validation (or non-validation) of previously published data so people doing this sort of work get credit.

Do you see open research networks such as ScienceOpen playing a role in this?

Absolutely. Organizations like ScienceOpen and Addgene are teaching scientists that sharing can have fantastic positive outcomes.

If you had to give one piece of advice to students interested in a research career, what would it be?

Start meeting people and developing diverse relationships from the start of your science training and keep it up through your entire career. Opportunities are all about who you know.

Thanks Joanne, we really appreciate your insight and expertise on these matters! I hope others find your perspective valuable too.

About Joanne Kamens, PhD

Image credit: Joanne Kamen
Image credit: Joanne Kamens

Dr. Kamens is the Executive Director of Addgene, a mission driven, nonprofit dedicated to helping scientists around the world share plasmid reagents.  She received her PhD in Genetics from Harvard Medical School then spent 20 years in Pharma and Biotechnology at the bench and in management.  Dr. Kamens founded the current Boston chapter of the Association for Women in Science. In 2010, Dr. Kamens received the Catalyst Award from the Science Club for Girls for longstanding dedication to empowering women in STEM and in 2013, she was named one of PharmaVoice’s 100 Most Inspiring Commanders & Chiefs. She speaks widely to scientists on careers, mentoring and diversity.