Athena Cherry, Stanford professor of pathology and pediatrics, dies at 60

Athena Cherry, the director of Stanford’s Cytogenetics Laboratory for more than 20 years, died Feb. 4 of lung cancer.

- By Krista Conger

Athena Cherry

Athena Milatovich Cherry, PhD, professor of pathology and of pediatrics at the Stanford School of Medicine, died Feb. 4 of lung cancer at her home on the university campus. She was 60. 

Cherry was the director of Stanford’s Cytogenetics Laboratory, where she oversaw, evaluated and diagnosed thousands of patient cases each year. Cytogenetics is the study of the structure and function of chromosomes in normal and diseased cells. Identifying chromosomes that are broken, rearranged or missing plays a critical role in the diagnosis of many genetic diseases and cancers, and can help physicians identify the best treatment strategies for their patients. 

Cherry was known personally and professionally for her direct and honest communication style, clever wit, strong work ethic, and unshakable loyalty to her team and the patients they helped.

“Dr. Cherry will be missed greatly, not just by those who worked closely with her for decades, but by the greater cytogenetics community,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “Her influence in her field was widespread and extended beyond her long history at Stanford. Her absence will be deeply felt.” 

Cherry served as president of the American Board of Medical Genetics, board member for the American College of Medical Genetics and the American Cytogenetic Conference, and as a reviewer for multiple journals in her field. She co-authored more than 100 papers on gene mapping, medical genetics, cytogenetics and cancer cytogenetics.

In addition to being widely respected and well-known in the cytogenetics community, Cherry was also valued by the staff who worked for her. 

“She started her career as a cytogenetics technologist, so she understood our world and was part of it,” said Dana Bangs, a former supervisor in the cytogenetics laboratory. “She was a better director as a result, and she treated each of us not just as team members, but also as friends and colleagues. We were privileged to have that relationship for 25 years.”

Postdoctoral studies at Stanford

Cherry was born on April 5, 1959, in Indianapolis. Known to friends and colleagues as Tena, she earned a PhD from Indiana University in 1990.

“She was very hardworking and extremely talented,” said Nyla Heerema, PhD, professor of pathology at Ohio State University who knew Cherry as a graduate student. “But she had a sense of humor too. She used to complain, when she was first moving into cancer cytogenetics, that the cases she was getting were all normal chromosomes, and she really wanted some abnormal ones to analyze. Of course, she finally did get those abnormal cases and learned how to characterize them very well.”

She completed postdoctoral studies at Stanford in the laboratory of geneticist Uta Francke, MD. There she was instrumental in mapping the location of many then-recently cloned human genes using a technique known as fluorescent in situ hybridization. She joined the Stanford faculty in 1995 as the director of the cytogenetics laboratory and an assistant professor of pediatrics. 

“Tena was incredibly competent and reliable,” recalled Francke, now a professor emeritus of genetics and of pediatrics. “She not only co-authored 22 papers during her years with me, but also trained many others in my group. She was so solid in her knowledge and in her opinions.”

James Zehnder, MD, a professor of pathology and of medicine at Stanford, said Cherry had “a really strong commitment to excellence.”

“Many lab directors are somewhat removed from the day-to-day work their staff are doing,” he said. “But because she came from a tech background, she could go to the bench and troubleshoot something just like a technician could.” 

She is survived by her husband, Bradley Cherry, and her daughter, Jacqueline Cherry.

About Stanford Medicine

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2023 ISSUE 2

How the environment and health interact