Promising Young Scientist: Fred Hutch’s Stephanie Dobersch has Found Her Calling in Pancreatic Cancer Research

‘An impressive body of work that will revolutionize the way we identify, understand, and treat different subtypes’


Stephanie Dobersch and Sita Kugel Stephanie Dobersch (right) and Principal Investigator Sita Kugel: 'I was immediately struck by Stephanie’s attention to detail, scientific creativity, and resilience.'

Anyone with a passing familiarity with cancer knows that pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of the disease. A common refrain is that, in many cases, “by the time it is diagnosed, it is likely too late to be cured.”

This year, nearly 70,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and more than 51,000 will die from it, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). ACS has committed more than $25 million in grants to individuals researching pancreatic cancer; next year, a portion of that money will fund the work of Stephanie Dobersch, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow in the Kugel Lab at the Fred Hutch Cancer Center.

Dobersch, 33, joined the lab in 2020, but her collaboration with Principal Investigator Sita Kugel, Ph.D. dates back to 2014 at Harvard Medical School where Dobersch was a research intern.

“I was fortunate enough to directly work with Stephanie when I was a post-doc in Boston,” Kugel said. “She was a Master’s student intern visiting from Germany and I was immediately struck by Stephanie’s attention to detail, scientific creativity, and resilience.”

Those three characteristics are clearly evident in Dobersch, whose interest in science dates back to age 16 as a high school student in Germany.

“My biology teacher was new to the classroom and she was so enthusiastic,” Dobersch said. “She made science so interesting, and I thought, ‘My God, I love this!’”

She advanced to the University of Giessen, a research institution near Frankfurt that was founded in 1607. For context, that was the same year of the first permanent English settlement in North America in Jamestown, Virginia.

Dobersch completed her Master’s Degree in Biology in 2014 and, after three months at Harvard, returned to Giessen for a Ph.D. in Natural Sciences. Five years later with her doctorate in hand, she emailed Kugel with a simple, but provocative question: “Do you want to hire me?”

Kugel recalls, “I was ecstatic when Stephanie reached out to me for a potential post-doc position in my newly formed lab.”

Working alongside Kugel, Dobersch has focused on basal pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, a subtype of pancreatic cancer that is a highly aggressive.

“I have found two proteins that are highly expressed in this subtype, and during my post-doc I have tried to figure out what those proteins are doing and why these tumor cells are addicted to them,” she said.

She is now working on pre-clinical models and different drug treatments. For her and other researchers, their success is crucial: This subtype has an average 5-year survival rate of less than 10 percent.

“Stephanie has continued to thrive and has produced an impressive body of work that I feel will revolutionize the way we identify, understand, and treat different subtypes,” said Kugel. “We are now discovering that these findings are broadly applicable across malignancies. She has all the attributes to be successful in her career as a cancer researcher. I am so excited to see all she will accomplish.”

It is evident Dobersch has found her professional calling.

My research is very fulfilling,” she said. “It makes me happy, finding new ways to benefit cancer patients.”

What else does Dobersch find fulfilling?

It seems she has an endless array of hobbies and, with the exception of abstract painting, most involved enjoying the outdoors: hiking, sailing, motorcycle riding, and underwater diving.

“It’s important to me to have different things to enjoy outside the lab,” she said. “I need different stimulations to feel inspired.”

That inspiration, she hopes, may one day lead to another professional goal: helping women in science balance the demands of work and motherhood.

“I would like to create a foundation to help women who want to have children, as well as an inspiring career in science,” she said.

Over the past four years Dobersch has acclimated to most of the social, cultural, and culinary changes she has faced in Seattle. Except one: bread

“I’m still looking for a good German bakery,” she said. “Do you have any suggestions?”