Lyric Jorgenson ’00 loves the brain—its intricacies, its mysteries, its power, everything. When the neuroscientist sits in an Au Bon Pain near her office and looks out the window, she doesn’t just see strangers with coffee cups and cellphones in hand. She sees the marvelous fact that they are all upright, walking, and responsible for this world.
“Our brains are just three-pound masses made out of biological materials—cells that we can grow in petri dishes. Yet they have an amazing level of skills. Humans all start from the same framework, but each person’s brain is completely different. We learn, we adapt, and we get to work to solve the world’s problems,” says the former psychology major.
And that’s certainly the story for Jorgenson, who, after seven years working for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was appointed deputy executive director of the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force this spring.
Announced during President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address, the Task Force seeks to make a decade of progress in preventing, diagnosing, and treating cancer in just five years—ultimately striving to end cancer as we know it.
Chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, the group includes leadership from approximately 20 executive branch departments, agencies, and White House offices, including the Department of Health and human Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defences, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and more.
Jorgenson leads to coordination of the designated staff members of these departments, as well as outside experts, government officials, patient advocates, and others. “I’m not an expert in cancer, but I can build things,” says the Wisconsin native. “My expertise is understanding the vision and seeing how we all fit together. It’s like taking a bunch of objects spinning in their own orbits and getting their movements to synchronize.”
Jorgenson traces her ability to think critically back to the time she spent at Denison. As an example, she refers to the tests she took in psychology professor Susan Kennedy’s classes, in which students were required to write a paragraph defending their selection of an answer for a multiple choice question. “That was the most annoying, valuable lesson possible, because problems rarely have a clear solution,” she explains. “The answer largely comes from knowing how to think through the problem itself.” And it’s with this type of strategic thinking that the Task Force will tackle one of the leading causes of death in our era.
While Jorgenson finds working for the Task Force rewarding and enjoys her office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House, she plans to return to her position as the NIH’s deputy director for the Office of Science Policy at the end of the year. “This year’s goal for the Task Force,” she says, “is to set a solid foundation by planning and launching new programs, so that the next president will be compelled to support the vision. I can help to build that foundation, but someone else will be better suited to sustaining the growth.”
As for the outcomes of the Task Force, we’ll just have to wait and see. But if we know anything, it’s that the human mind is capable of amazing things. With Jorgenson’s help, that brain power will be brought to bear in the biggest possible way in the “moonshot” initiative against cancer.