Faced with a public speaking requirement as an undergraduate student at SUNY Environmental and Science and Forestry, she opted to take a summer class at a different school rather than be seen or heard by her classmates. But now, Rittenhouse-Olson is perfectly comfortable addressing an audience of any size, whether it is a class of 200 or the king of Saudi Arabia. She quickly found that it is easy to talk about a topic that she’s passionate about.
“It’s not about being in front of the people anymore,” said Rittenhouse-Olson, a professor of biotechnical and clinical laboratory sciences and director of UB’s biotechnology program. “It’s about having a passion for what you’re saying. If you’re teaching about something that you love, you want to explain the topic to anyone that is interested in learning.
“I think we set our own limits, and we don’t have to sometimes. I set my early limit—Oh, I won’t be a teacher because I don’t like to get up in front of people to talk—but it’s totally different if you have a passion for what you’re talking about.”
It would take a while before she would get into teaching, but Rittenhouse-Olson soon found what inspired her. Although she majored in environmental chemistry, she volunteered working in an immunology lab and immediately fell in love with the discipline.
“Immunology is so fun and interesting, and you can change the world with it in terms of vaccines and other therapeutic agents,” she said. “So I decided that I wanted to study immunology.”
Rittenhouse-Olson switched gears and headed to the University of Kentucky to get a master’s in microbiology/experimental pathology before returning to New York to earn a PhD in microbiology/immunology from UB. Her interest in the subject took a sharp and deeply personal turn, however, when her sister, Robin, was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed away within a few years. Rittenhouse-Olson recently started a company in her sister’s memory, hoping to expand on her own breast cancer research and find novel ways to treat the leading form of cancer among women in the U.S.
“The level of excitement about what I teach is because of the research that I do,” she said. “It’s a passion I have because of my sister and the desire to help others. Based on the novel findings from my lab, I really think that my research can make a difference for cancer patients.”
“I have a monoclonal antibody, and I can cure breast cancer metastasis in mice. I can find breast cancer in mice. I can put human tumors in mice and detect them. I can block human tumors from binding to blood vessels. The patented antibody reacts with about 80 percent of human breast tumors, including the triple negative ones in young women that are hard to treat. I want to extend this research to humans. I can get more funding to do things in mice, but it’s hard to get the funding to go from mice to humans. That’s what I am trying to do with this company.”
Her cancer research has garnered international attention. A paper she worked on with one of her former students, Adel Almogren, a professor at King Saud University, resulted in an invitation to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah to discuss further collaboration and possible research funding.
“We rode a camel in from the parking lot of the King’s ranch and there were videographers running backward and filming us,” Rittenhouse-Olson said. “It was like we became Lindsay Lohan overnight. It was surreal.”
Rittenhouse-Olson began her research career in the 1980s at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. She was there more than a decade, but eventually returned to UB to teach. In her first few years as a professor, she also did vaccine research for Wyeth Lederle over the summer. Her experiences working in research labs led her to take the lead in establishing the biotechnology program at UB in 1999.
“Biotechnology is different from medical technology in that students aren’t prepared for going into the hospital lab, they’re prepared for going into research,” Rittenhouse-Olson said. “I thought the field of biotechnology would excite some of my students.”
Getting the program started was one thing. But Rittenhouse-Olson also knew that creating a network of internship placement sites was critical, because the arrangements would allow students and companies to test each other out and possibly lead to future employment offers. She contacted more than 200 companies seeking feedback about the program and asking if they would be willing to welcome interns and many did. Over the years, as the program has graduated students into the workforce, that network has grown. Using Facebook, biotechnology and medical technology students, alumni and employers can share internship and job opportunities, reach out for contact info or advice or just stay in touch with their fellow scientists.
“Companies call and tell me when they have an opening and I post it on the Web page. I also post internships there,” Rittenhouse-Olson said. “Students and alumni post when they hear about a job. This helps keep them connected to the program. It helps them pay back. If they got a really good internship and they find another really good internship, they tell other students about it.
“I think all good schools help students develop career networks. This is what we do as an excellent school.”
Last updated: May 22, 2013 3:32 am EST