Dr. Vitetta traces her interest in science back to childhood, when she became fascinated by nature, “especially unusual creatures including reptiles and insects,” she said. “I even had my own ant colony.” She followed her interests in math and science, finding “many inspirational teachers and mentors along the way. In college I knew that I wanted a career in biomedical research. I double majored in chemistry and biology in college and took my graduate courses in both the medical and graduate school at NYU.”
Never shying away from her own curiosity, Dr. Vitetta learned at an early age to “take calculated risks when I could – creativity is always risky."
"In my generation, being a female in science was a risk itself. I learned to deflect negative attitudes and behaviors and develop thick skin. It was critical to keep my eye on the ball and speak up when necessary.”
Contributions to STEMM
Currently, Dr. Vitetta is a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Immunology. Her translational immunology research is focused on tumor dormancy as well as the employment of immunotoxins and monoclonal antibodies as cancer treatments. She has extensive experience in the development of vaccines. Dr. Vitetta invented, produced, and tested a vaccine against ricin, both in animals and humans. Once approved by the FDA, the vaccine will go to the National Vaccine Stockpile.
Advocacy for Women in STEMM
“Growing up, there were few girls and women in the STEMM community,” said Dr. Vitetta. This discrepancy fueled her passion to advocate for women throughout her career. At UT Southwestern she co-founded the Women in Science and Medicine Advisory Committee (WISMAC) in 1995 and served as its inaugural chair for 10 years. This group works to advance the interests of all women at UT Southwestern through a host of activities. She emphasizes the importance of “ time management, networking, and organization, all of which go a long way, especially for women.”
As a passionate mentor, especially to female scientists, Dr. Vitetta’s mentees have gone on to do incredible things. Notably, “One of my former graduate students, Linda B. Buck, Ph.D., became the first – and so far only – alumna of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.” Additionally, her former fellow, Dr. Francis Ligler, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).
Dr. Vitetta believes that UTSW’s Celebrating Breakthroughs Together project represents the progress that women have made.
She advises the next generation of women in STEMM to “not get distracted by the negative opinions of others or derailed by the many obstacles. Deal with one thing at a time and keep moving forward.” She stresses the importance of “preparing for both success and failure – celebrate your successes and learn from your failures.”
Despite the demands of a distinguished career in research, Dr. Vitetta still finds time for levity.
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"It’s really important to develop a sense of humor and learn to recognize the ridiculous.”