The heart matters

How Sanford Burnham Prebys' super-couple balance research, family and marriage
Rolf Bodmer, Ph.D. and Karen Ocorr, Ph.D.

Trying to balance the demands of high-stress careers, publishing and traveling internationally while simultaneously raising a family and having a successful marriage...isn’t easy. When the stars are aligned, most dual-career couples would say it’s, at best, doable.

But Karen Ocorr, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Development, Aging and Regeneration Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute; and Rolf Bodmer, Ph.D., professor and director of the Development, Aging and Regeneration Program, take it in stride.

“I wanted a family and I wanted to work in science,” says Ocorr.

“I wanted a balanced life,” says Bodmer.

They were postdocs when they met. She was at Stanford University School of Medicine; and he was at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine working for a high-powered couple, both of whom were members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Karen Ocorr discusses files in space
Flies in Space: “When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut,” says Karen Ocorr, Ph.D.
“So this is really cool for me.” 
Ocorr is talking about teaming up with NASA
to send fruit fly eggs on SpaceX to the International Space Station, where they will hatch and live up there for a month, which
is about half the life span of a fruit fly.
“Given the increasing interest in commercial space exploration, it’s really important to
know how gravity—or lack of gravity—affects human physiology.”


Navigating careers

It takes mutual respect and cooperation to navigate separate scientific careers. The Bodmer-Ocorrs have found a way to maintain separate careers with shared goals, and to integrate their work and home lives by helping and supporting each other.

By the time Bodmer was offered a position at the University of Michigan, they’d had their first child. Ocorr took a teaching position at the University of Michigan and co-wrote a textbook, The Absolute Ultimate Guide to Principles of Biochemistry, with Marcy Osgood, which is still in use today.

After 12 years, they took a sabbatical to work in Marseille, France. “When we returned, I knew I didn’t want to teach,” says Ocorr. “I was very good at it, but I craved something new. However, it’s tough to re-enter research once you leave it.”

Bodmer took a research position at Sanford Burnham Prebys to continue his work using the fruit fly Drosophila as a genetic model to study cardiac development, and Ocorr began a teaching position at UC San Diego.

“That’s when I decided I really needed to get back into research,” she says. “A lot of women in science have just one kid; they put in 80-hour weeks, and that’s all they have time for. We had three children by then, but I still wanted to pursue science.”

A self-described jack of all trades who learned how to design and program her own website in the ‘90s, Ocorr, who was trained as a physiologist, came up with a fruit fly dissection technique and started to monitor heart function with movies of actively beating hearts. “Rolf gave me the chance to bring it all together,” she says. “It was good for his lab, too—now he could look at cardiac development genes in the adult heart as well as embryos.”

When science has wings

Both Ocorr and Bodmer work with Drosophila to unravel complex biological processes. Fruit flies have common features with humans to a remarkable degree; 75 percent of the genes that cause disease in humans, are also found in the fly. This means that we can apply what we learn from studying flies to medicine.

The Bodmer-Ocorr couple studies Drosophila hearts as a way to assess genes and mechanisms involved in heart development, congenital heart disease, cardiomyopathies and the effects of aging on the human heart.

Ocorr is collaborating with NASA to uncover the basis of cardiac and muscle atrophy in astronauts exposed to extended periods of microgravity. Her team launched flies aboard SpaceX-3 and 11 for monthlong journeys to see how well the insects’ hearts function and which genes are expressed in a weightless environment.

Recently, the Bodmer lab used Drosophila as a model to show that elevated levels of ceramide (a type of fat or lipid) play a crucial role in lipotoxic cardiomyopathy (LCM), a heart condition that occurs in patients with diabetes and obesity. The research may lead to new treatments and preventions for LCM and end-stage heart failure.

Fly away

“Almost all of our vacations are working vacations,” says Ocorr. “We try to tag vacations onto scientific meetings, but we always have grants and papers to discuss. Sometimes it’s hard to find other things to talk about—but that’s okay. We love our work.”

“When we do take time off, we hike, bike, swim and scuba dive (off Thailand recently), and of course we ski—after all, I’m Swiss!” says Bodmer. “One of our favorite vacations is skiing with our kids at Mammoth Mountain.

“Karen has really helped bring balance to our family. She has always been that way, and it’s great.”

Single fruit fly (drosophila melanogaster)


Small Flies: Big Discoveries


6 Nobel Prizes

have been awarded to scientists who have used Drosophila as the basis for groundbreaking research


Thomas Hunt Morgan used Drosophila to uncover the role played by chromosomes in heredity


Hermann Joseph Muller discovered that X-ray irradiation caused mutations in fruit flies


Edward B. Lewis, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus used Drosophila to understand genetic control of early embryonic development


Richard Axel concentrated on odor receptors and the organization of the olfactory system


Jules A. Hoffman was given the award for his research on the activation of innate immunity


Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young won the prize for their studies of circadian rhythms