In 2007 Nancy Andrews, M.D., Ph.D., became the first woman to lead a medical school ranked among the top 10 by U.S. News and World Report. At the 29th annual Farr Lecture on Student Research Day on May 3, however, the dean of Duke University School of Medicine made no mention of breaking through the glass ceiling.

Instead, Andrews, who is vice chancellor for academic affairs, the Nanaline H. Duke Professor of Medicine (pediatrics), and professor of pharmacology, and of cancer biology launched into a fast-paced story about her search for a mutation within an iron transporter gene. Several colleagues told her she wouldn’t find it. In her keynote address, Andrews told medical students how she not only found it, but also used an unusual and difficult method at the time, called positional gene cloning, in her experiments.

Previous mentors and advisors, Andrews said, prepared her well for this undertaking. As a molecular biophysics and biochemistry undergraduate and master’s student at Yale in the late 1970s, she worked with Joan Steitz, Ph.D., the Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. Steitz taught her the value of unwavering attention to molecular mechanisms. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she worked under Nobel laureate David Baltimore, Ph.D., who taught her about the “many interesting scientific questions in medicine that very few people are thinking about.” After earning her medical degree at Harvard, she completed a fellowship under Stuart Orkin, M.D., now the David G. Nathan Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In Orkin’s lab she needed to purify the protein nuclear factor-erythroid 2 (NF-E2). “It took 1,400 liters of cells and many hours in a cold room,” she said. Again, Andrews faced skepticism about her methods, which were considered risky at the time. She pushed on and purified the protein. “I urge young people to take risks in your science because it pays off tremendously,” she said. As she started her independent research laboratory, Andrews determined she would pin down the mutation in the gene that causes microcytic anemia, an iron metabolism disorder. This work led to her favorite paper, published in Nature Genetics in 1997. “The reason it’s my favorite is because I was actively discouraged from trying the approach we were ultimately successful with.”

For Tsion Aberra, a fifth-year student, Andrews’ words of “thank goodness we didn’t listen,” stayed with her. “In my own career, especially in these early stages, I’m aware of my unwillingness to challenge or contradict the opinions of my mentors,” Aberra said, adding that it’s a fine line to balance humility with thinking outside the box. “I hope to have confidence to challenge my mentors so I can grow as an independent thinker,” she said. Using her career path as an example, said fourth-year Shalom Sokolow, Andrews encouraged students to depart from “traditional frameworks we may be more familiar with from training.”

At the end of her lecture, Andrews summarized other major lessons she’s learned: Sometimes interesting science starts with a mistake. Treasures can be found in very old literature, which can inform present day experiments. New technologies in science help level the playing field. And, there’s no shortage of scientific problems to pursue.