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Kate Vogel talks tendons and tenure for pioneering women

AAAS Lifetime Member Kate Vogel is a professor emerita of biology at the University of New Mexico and former chairwoman of Women in Cell Biology. (Photo: Kate Vogel)

For Kate Vogel, science has been all about connections—the ties that bind muscle to bone, and linking more women to careers in biology.

In three decades as a professor at the University of New Mexico, the AAAS Lifetime Member devoted much of her time to studying the biochemistry of tendons. And as a scientist, instructor and administrator, she devoted herself to encouraging and mentoring other women who wanted to follow her path into the laboratory.

Yet her work occasionally started in a building where the business at hand was disconnection—a slaughterhouse. Albuquerque, where the university is located, is cattle country, and the first step in some of Vogel's research was collecting what beef processors left behind.

"They would give us the feet of some cows that they had recently slaughtered," Vogel said. "We could then take those feet back to my laboratory at UNM."

Vogel was particularly interested in a type of protein known as proteoglycans, which cluster around the outside of cells. They had been studied extensively in cartilage, the soft, squishy tissue that cushions joints. But because few people had focused on their behavior in tougher, fibrous tendons, Vogel saw an opportunity to make a contribution.

In a series of studies from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s, using both bovine and human tendons, Vogel eventually demonstrated that when a tendon bends around a joint under stress, like an ankle, its cells produce new, cartilage-like tissue.

"That was a breakthrough observation," she said. Before her research, doctors examining tendons "would find stuff that looked like cartilage, and they would say, ''Oh my goodness, this must be pathology. Something has gone terribly wrong there.' My whole message to the orthopedics community was 'No, this is exactly what you want.' It's now protecting the tissue from the compressive load that is being placed upon it."

Vogel started her education at California's Pomona College with an interest in chemistry, but it was the early 1960s, and James Watson and Francis Crick's identification of the structure of DNA created a whole new field and she wanted to be a part of it. "It was the background of everything that was being learned."

Vogel's passion for research was ignited after she completed a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of California-Los Angeles in 1968. When it came time to start her career, she combined research and teaching at UNM.

She was the first woman to win tenure in the biology department at New Mexico, joining the faculty after doing post-doctoral research in Seattle, Boston, and at the UNM medical school. She also served four years as head of the UNM Biology Department, the first woman to lead a science department at the school. 

The significance of those achievements isn't lost on Vogel, who bumped up against gender barriers from the beginning of her career. Her initial interest in marine biology was hampered by the fact that women weren't allowed to sail on research cruises in the 1960s.

"I was a sailor as a kid. I said, 'I'm not going to stay in the lab and never get to go to sea,'" she explained.

By the time she went to New Mexico, she was married and had three children to raise—a daunting prospect in a male-centric university environment.

 "I did not know at any level, any woman who was a professor at any university in the country who was still married to her first husband," she said. Women weren't hired for tenure-track jobs, research was arduous and time-consuming, "and there wasn't much support for women who were choosing to take that road."

"Very often, it was presented as a choice," Vogel said. "You either got married, or you became a professor. It was not considered OK to do both." With the rise of the feminist movement, women began to believe that they could have both a family and a profession—but it was still a difficult balance to strike.

That's part of what drew Vogel and other female members of the American Society for Cell Biology to form Women in Cell Biology, a society within the society. The group formed in the early 1970s; Vogel served on its steering committee from 1983 to 1987 and as its chairwoman in 1985-86. WICB hosted special events designed specifically for women at ASCB conferences and tried to connect students and younger researchers to veterans who could offer them advice.

 "That environment of being the only woman on a large faculty and getting tenure when I did, that's a lot of why I became involved in Women in Cell Biology," she said. "There were [a] number of women in Women in Cell Biology who were very helpful in mentoring younger women, and I think did some very important things."

Vogel still holds the title of professor emerita at UNM, but she now lives in the Colorado mountains. She's still married to her first husband; they have three children and five grandchildren, and she's still rooting for younger women to pursue careers in STEM fields.

"There's still a prejudice at the middle-school level that keeps girls from seriously considering a career in science, technology, mathematics, but I think that's where it has to start," she said.