Amander Clark made a pretty big entrance into the world. She was one of two sets of twins born on the same day, a Friday the 13th, in a small town of 10,000 four hours west of Melbourne, Australia.
Everyone knew everyone else in that small town in, literally, the middle of nowhere, so the births were big news. And that grand entrance may have foreshadowed bigger things to come for Clark, a scientist at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
She and her fraternal twin sister were the first children born to her parents, who were sheep farmers. Clark, in fact, didn’t even live in that small town, she lived outside it, a true country girl who rode her bike to the bus stop and leaned it up against a wire fence so she could catch the bus to school.
Although her parents were not college educated, they were adamant that Clark go to university. And it was a high school chemistry teacher who set Clark on the scientific path that led her to stem cell research.
“Sometimes there’s that one special, amazing teacher that changes everything,” Clark said. “Mine opened me up to the world of science.”
Growing up on a farm, Clark learned life lessons in science every day. She saw biology in action. But that teacher showed her that “science, instead of something you live, could be something you make a living by,” she said.
Clark enrolled in the University of Melbourne to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. Before she went off to college at 18, she’d only been to Melbourne twice before. She saw her first movie in a theater at age 16.
“I was pretty sheltered. It was a big culture shock,” she said. “It took me a year to get used to living in a city, with the noise, and public transportation, all the people I didn’t know. Everything I appreciated in a small town was absent in a big city.”
Clark learned to love Melbourne and its culture and entertainment. As she moved through her studies, she gravitated to developmental biology. Her final year as an undergraduate, she took classes from a professor who ran a developmental biology lab and she talked to him about her plans after graduation. She ended up working in his lab for a year, what is called an honors year, similar to a master’s program in the United States.
She loved working in the lab and decided to earn a doctoral degree in developmental biology. It was the right decision.
“I loved it,” she said. “I knew I’d hit my career path.”
The professor had become a mentor to Clark and he regaled her with stories about his going to the U.S. to do research after earning his doctorate. Clark, the country girl from the small town, decided she would go halfway around the world and do the same thing.
In 1998, she landed a spot as a post doc in a lab at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. She had grown interested in molecular issues associated with men and women’s health, embryonic development and reproduction. She studied molecules in a signaling pathway that played a role in male and female gonadal development, using mouse models to understand germ line biology.
Wanting to use a human model system, Clark left Texas in 2002 and joined a lab at the University of California, San Francisco, where she got her first exposure to human embryonic stem cells. For the next four years, she studied development of human germ cells, the cells that differentiate into either egg or sperm cells, in a quest to better understand human reproductive health.
In 2006, she was recruited to UCLA as an assistant professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology. She also is part of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center on campus.
“UCLA seemed like a really good place to start my own research program,” Clark said. “It had exactly what I was looking for – mentorship, resources, a concentrated urban campus. I knew I could enrich my research here.”
Her lab at UCLA has two major focuses, understanding the molecular events that transform a normal cell into a cancer cell. Then, once formed, what are the mechanisms of cancer stem cells within that tumor, particularly in germ cell cancers such as testicular cancer, which tend to metastasize if not treated.
Her lab also seeks to understand how to harness the power of embryonic stem cells to generate germ cells. This model can be used to understand the fundamental events that are required to form the germ line. If Clark could understand the early events in germ line formation, it could help her to understand the basis for infertility, birth defects or how certain cancers, such as testicular cancer, form.
“If we can understand how things happen normally, we might be able to predict what might happen when things don’t form normally,” she said.
Clark is married to a physician-administrator, Alex, who she met in Texas. Their son, Atticus James, turned one in September.
“Although in my case I didn’t require reproductive intervention, having a baby gave me a whole new perspective on my research and how it could help couples with infertility,” said Clark, who gets donated surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics to conduct her research. “As a scientist, I know how fortunate I am to be the recipient of such a donation. I know I have a responsibility to the couple that made that decision to donate that embryo. I know how precious it is.”
-By Kim Irwin