A Wyoming native has been nominated to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by President Joe Biden.
Monica Bertagnolli, a cancer surgeon who grew up in Rock Springs, is the director of the National Cancer Institute. On Monday, Biden announced he’s nominating Bertagnolli to head the agency, a post that has been vacant for more than a year.
Bertagnolli is also a cancer patient. She announced the news last December, describing her early breast cancer prognosis as “very favorable.”
In a statement announcing the decision, Biden calls Bertagnolli a “world-class physician-scientist” who had “spent her career pioneering scientific discovery and pushing the boundaries of what is possible to improve cancer prevention and treatment for patients and ensuring that patients in every community have access to quality care.”
Commitment To Heritage
Former state lawmaker Bernadine Craft's grandfather sold what became the current White Acorn Ranch to Bertagnolli's grandfather about 100 years ago.
Craft said Bertagnolli is very dedicated to retaining the historic character of her family's ranch.
"It's so meaningful to me that (for) this amazing woman, her Sweetwater County roots are still important to her," she said.
Craft said Bertagnolli invited her out to the ranch in the summer of 2021 where she had a surprise waiting. Carved into the wood of an old barn was the signature of Craft's mother. Bertagnolli told Craft that not only were they planning on preserving the barn, but they also planned to name a room in it after Craft's mother.
"It really speaks to Monica as a human, not only as a renown researcher and scientist and a proud achievement of Rock Springs High School, she's also an amazing human being," Craft said.
Growing up, Bertagnolli would spend summers on her family’s ranch in Boulder, Wyoming, at the foothills of the Wind River Mountains. During the school year, she lived and went to school in Rock Springs.
“When I was a kid, we raised sheep, but it later became a working cattle ranch and remains one to this day,” Bertagnolli said in the American Society of Clinical Oncology Post. “It was a wonderful way to grow up; the state itself is simply gorgeous.”
Living 60 miles from the nearest town on the ranch, Bertagnolli and her siblings learned to be resourceful.
“If something broke you needed to fix it yourself, and when it came time to make dinner, you had to make do with whatever was available,” she said.
First, Princeton, Then Beyond
After graduating from high school, Bertagnolli attended Princeton University, where she was one of only a handful of Wyoming students at the Ivy League school.
One of those Princeton classmates was Mary Throne, now commissioner of the Wyoming Public Service Commission.
Throne, a year younger than Bertagnolli, said even though they didn’t have any classes together, Bertagnolli helped her get her feet settled at the elite East Coast institution.
“It’s just incredible when anyone gets named to one of these posts,” Throne said. “I’m sure she had a good foundation in Wyoming high schools.”
Throne said the Wyoming students at Princeton held their own in the classroom.
“That’s something we all found out when we got there is we can compete with students from across the country because we had such a strong Wyoming education,” she said.
After studying engineering at Princeton, Bertagnolli went to the University of Utah School of Medicine, where she decided surgery would be her path.
“I came from a ranching background, so I wasn’t about to let a male culture intimidate me,” she said.
Over the course of her career, Bertagnolli specialized in the treatment of tumors from gastrointestinal diseases and soft tissue sarcomas and performed landmark research on colon tumor prevention.
She went on to work at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, was a professor of surgery specializing in surgical oncology at Harvard Medical School and president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Bertagnolli has long been an advocate for rural health care and in 2021 testified virtually for Medicaid expansion in Wyoming.
She lives in the Boston area now, but Bertagnolli said she returns to the family ranch each summer, which keeps her “grounded.”
Bertagnolli will need to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate before the nomination is final. She is the first woman to lead the National Cancer Institute and would be the second woman to lead the NIH on a permanent basis, according to The New York Times.
Contact Leo Wolfson at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com