Message from the Director
We have lost Sue McCollum, a good friend and supporter
Irv Weissman, Sue McCollum and Dale Chihuly
Dec 10, 2020
Over a decade ago, we had just broken ground to build the Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Building, and I had given a short talk on how stem cell biology not only informed how stem cells could help regenerate or keep healthy normal tissues such as blood and brain, but also provided unique clues about cancer and cancer stem cells. After the talk, a bright and bouncy, smiling woman asked me if I liked Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures. Luckily for me and us, I could reply yes, and that I’d met Dale at a conference in Davos, Switzerland. Dale had explained his vision for glass sculptures large and small that created another world altogether, in which one could escape to scenes of virtual jungles of plants and sea creatures, or be surrounded by vases right out of the Southwest Native American cultures.
The smiley woman turned out to be Sue McCollum, then a recent breast cancer survivor who had received curative radiotherapy to eliminate the rest of the local cancer cells. She had used that experience to create, with her husband Bob, a philanthropy called “My Blue Dots.” I asked her what that meant, and she said she was referring to the blue dot tattoos that helped align the radiation beam with each new treatment—a bit of self-art that proved important to eliminate cancer cells within precise fields, while sparing surrounding fields of normal cells. When I told her of my own blue dots, placed in 1986 as a 46-year old with extending colon cancer. I told her how I thought it ironic that my Stanford mentor and patron during and after my time as a medical student in Stanford’s 5-year curriculum was Henry Kaplan, who had, with Ed Ginzton of Applied Physics, developed the linear accelerator that deposited killing radiation in the tumor instead of the skin. Sue and I began a decade of conversation, starting with plans to bring the blue dots to the atrium of our stem cell building.
Sue proposed that we meet Dale, and if he was willing, she and Bob would commission him to design and build a 3-story extended ‘chandelier’ of glass. And so we flew to Seattle to meet with Dale, me armed with slides, which I used to show Dale the beauty of multicolor immunofluorescence of experimental normal and cancerous tissue stains. One of them caught his eye—a sphere of normal human fetal brain stem cells in which interior cells were dividing and giving rise to progeny that extended axon-like processes. These extended out between the dividing brain stem cells at the surface of the spheres. He showed us similar ‘cells’, each a mini glass sculpture component. Sue became enthralled with the possibility we could have such an important biological and artistic representation as a way to inspire students and doctors-in-training, as well as older MDs, in research every day. With her bright smile and impish enthusiasm, she and her non-profit My Blue Dots committed to the installment of the Chihuly Chandelier in the atrium of the Lokey building.
Over the years, Sue continued to meet with us and come to our events, spending time with the students around their posters, bringing many to her house and encouraging them through their careers. She also was a docent for our building, bringing cancer survivors and donors to see how we were trying to use our focus on stem cells to develop therapeutics. She explained that we are driven by the knowledge that each person has only a small window of opportunity to be treated, so we and our trainees and collaborators knew that the faster we could unravel the intricacies of stem cells in the body, the more likely we could get to treatments in their small window of time.
Sue wrote poems and verse about how she saw the world and the threats of cancer in it in pieces called ‘Seeing through my lens’. These observations in rhyme took a darker turn this past two years, first as she nursed her husband Bob back to health after he had a medical setback. And then earlier this year as she was again diagnosed with cancer. Sue was heartened and guided by a strong Christian faith, but she never proselytized me, a near-agnostic Jew from Montana. We can take some solace by her conviction that although her time on earth was ending, she was and would be still in a state of grace.
I miss her very much. We are all lucky that her faith included both religion and science, and that in both she was driven to share the good sides of both with all of us. She was amongst the greatest friends of the Institute.