Montserrat García-Closas Leaves DCEG
, by Victoria A. Fisher, M.P.H.
In May 2023, Montserrat García-Closas, M.D., M.P.H., Dr.P.H., Director of the Trans-Divisional Research Program (TDRP), left DCEG to begin a faculty position at the Institute for Cancer Research (ICR) in London, England, where she will be co-leading the new Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Research Unit between ICR and Imperial College London.
Dr. García-Closas rejoined the Division in 2015 and served as Deputy Director of DCEG through 2022. When TDRP was formed in 2020, she concurrently led TDRP as Director until the recent appointment of Peter Kraft, Ph.D. Over the past eight years, she has provided critical scientific and administrative leadership for the Division, launching groundbreaking new initiatives and shaping future research directions. Alongside Amy Berrington, D.Phil., former senior advisor for strategic activities, she chaired the Division’s 18-month strategic planning effort that resulted in the 2020-2025 DCEG Strategic Plan and oversaw the implementation of the plan. In addition, she expertly laid the groundwork to guide the Division’s broad research portfolio into a new era of data stewardship.
“Montse has a left a deep and lasting impression on the fabric of DCEG’s scientific and programmatic success,” said Stephen J. Chanock, M.D., Director, DCEG. “Over the course of her tenure at DCEG, she has developed a series of new initiatives as well as solutions to complex problems, using the newest approaches and tools. Her vision of a better and stronger DCEG has been fully realized, and we celebrate her lasting impact on DCEG. Indeed, she will be missed.”
Visionary Leader of DCEG
Notably, Dr. García-Closas was a voice for progress during her tenure as Deputy Director of DCEG, encouraging nimble ideas to improve efficiencies, adapt to new requirements and opportunities, and facilitate business processes. For example, she quickly identified a need to revamp the Division’s research administration operations with the deployment of a web-based dashboard; the new system, myDCEG, was launched in 2020. myDCEG is an information hub with applications such as a budget tool that has allowed the Division to harmonize data with NCI/NIH and has improved DCEG-specific processes for budget requests, budget monitoring, fiscal reporting, and portfolio analysis. Dr. García-Closas also recognized the critical need for DCEG to address emerging tissue-based research in molecular epidemiology and successfully established the Molecular and Digital Pathology Laboratory (MDPL) at the Cancer Genomics Research Laboratory.
As the Founding Director of TDRP, Dr. García-Closas was instrumental in collaborating with the Division’s branches and laboratories to develop research resources and facilitate trans-Divisional research in cancer epidemiology, genetics, and prevention. Under her direction, the Division has addressed priorities identified through strategic planning such as developing the DCEG Research Catalog, facilitating data sharing, convening a Health Disparities Advisory Group, establishing the DCEG Bioinformatics Virtual Core, improving strategies to recruit diverse candidates, and increasing the DCEG profile through enhanced messaging and dissemination. These actions, along with the appointment of staff and advisors in crucial areas of genomic epidemiology, bioinformatics, faculty development, and DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility), have galvanized the Division to engage in important discussions and reinforced a foundation of multidisciplinary collaboration and team science.
In addition, Dr. García-Closas was responsible for the key recruitment of Jonas Almeida, Ph.D., Director of Data Science and subsequent formation of the DCEG Data Science & Engineering Research Group, which conducts innovative research in data infrastructure and analytics and offers training for data science to the Division. With Dr. Almeida, she has championed the creation and use of collaborative data platforms and tools for large-scale epidemiological research, following Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable (FAIR) principles.
“The Data Science & Engineering Research Group is very much Montse’s brainchild,” remarked Dr. Almeida. “First, she organized an external review and paid close attention to the final recommendation that a trans-disciplinary data science research component was needed in DCEG's portfolio. She recruited me to start the data science program in 2019, and a few years later, she led the creation of TDRP to operationalize it at the Division level. This involved bringing together opportunities for technology adoption for FAIR infrastructure development, from questionnaires to digital pathology and genetic risk calculators for precision prevention.” He noted that “it’s hard to overestimate the impact of her efforts in how DCEG is articulating research efforts with both internal and external initiatives.”
Dr. García-Closas also served as Interim Branch Chief for the Integrative Tumor Epidemiology Branch (ITEB) from 2016-2020, during which she developed the mission, vision, and strategy of the new Branch, spurred collaborations and capacity for integrative analyses of risk factors and tissue profiling, and provided strategic leadership and scientific oversight. She was succeeded by Gretchen Gierach, Ph.D., M.P.H., in 2021.
Innovative Cancer Epidemiologist and Builder of Consortia
In addition to her scientific leadership, Dr. García-Closas is renowned as an international expert in breast and bladder cancer epidemiology. She has made seminal contributions to the understanding of genetic susceptibility, etiologic heterogeneity, and risk prediction for these malignancies. Her work has defined new risk factor profiles for different subtypes of tumors that occur in the same organ site, and she has developed risk prediction methods that combine genetic and environmental risk factors and serve as the foundation for making important public health decisions based on the stratification of cancer risk.
Moreover, Dr. García-Closas has distinguished herself as a remarkable architect and builder of large, multidisciplinary international consortia that have advanced research on risk factors for cancers of the breast, bladder, ovary, and endometrium. This talent is perhaps best illustrated by her leadership of the Confluence Project, an ambitious research effort bringing together genomic data from 600,000 individuals of diverse ancestries to uncover breast cancer genetics; the Breast Cancer Risk Prediction Project (BCRPP) within the NCI Cohort Consortium to develop and validate multi-ancestry breast cancer risk models for risk-based prevention and screening; and Connect for Cancer Prevention, a new prospective cohort study designed to better understand cancer etiology and its outcomes. During her tenure at the NCI, Dr. García-Closas served as the lead principal investigator (PI) for Connect; she was integral in the development of the Connect protocol, oversaw the critical launch period the study, and was the catalyst for steering the data ecosystem to a FAIR design. Connect is on the path to be a rich resource for future generations of scientists at the NCI and across the broader scientific community. Nicolas Wentzensen, M.D., Ph.D., M.S., Deputy Director and senior investigator in the Clinical Genetics Branch, will assume the role of PI for Connect; Dr. García-Closas will continue to advise as a member of the International Scientific Advisory Board.
Collaborator and Champion for the Next Generation of Scientists
Indeed, Dr. García-Closas is known for possessing a remarkable capacity to work across international boundaries to develop new methods, conduct large-scale analyses, and build coalitions of scientists. Her collaborators span the globe, as do her mentees. Her commitment to mentoring has been a career-long priority; she was recognized with the 2007 NCI Mentor of Merit Award and the 2022 mentoring award from the American Statistical Association. She continues to guide the next generation of scientists in cancer research. Many of her trainees have gone on to hold leadership positions around the United States and worldwide.
From her multidisciplinary research to leadership of TDRP and other parts of DCEG, Dr. García-Closas has demonstrated a strategic, forward-thinking approach throughout her tenure at the NCI. Her engagement and collaborations with DCEG colleagues, mentees, and the wider research community will continue to foster scientific excellence for years to come and will have a lasting impact on public health and the future of team science.