Jean Bennett TD ’76: Looking for a way to reverse blindness

Bennett with her husband, Dr. Albert McGuire, who also conducts research on blindness.

Surrounded by masses of students jockeying for medical school acceptances, Jean Bennett ’76 stood out as one of the few biology majors who were not pre-med. Instead, Bennett came to Yale with the ambition to take full advantage of the course offerings available. In fact, she contributes much of the successes in her career as a professor and a gene therapy researcher to the strong and diverse biology courses offered at Yale.

The daughter of a Yale physics professor who would later become master of Silliman College, Bennett was exposed to the Yale academic environment from an early age. Her love of biology began in elementary school when she volunteered to care for ground squirrels at Kline Biology Tower. Drawing upon her father’s experiences, she knew that one must be well rounded to become a successful researcher.

In addition to studying coral reefs, insect development, and molecular biology, Bennett took classes in a variety of departments, always looking to diversify her studies. Reflecting back, one of her most memorable classes at Yale was not a biology course, but rather “Computers as a Research Tool” – a class she “gained a lot from because of the importance of programming to applications in biological study.”

At Yale, Bennett played viola in the Yale Symphony Orchestra, tutored New Haven school students, performed in numerous impromptu concerts with friends, played intramurals, and conducted intensive research on DNA sequencing with Professor of Biology Joseph Gall. She was also involved in “mini-projects” at the Yale Medical School in electron microscopy, working under the mentorship of various esteemed professors.

After graduating with a B.S. in Honors Biology, Bennett went on to the study invertebrates at the University of California, Berkeley, attributing her “experiences and breadth of knowledge gained at Yale,” as crucial factors that helped her narrow down her graduate studies. She received her received her Ph.D. in Cell and Developmental Biology in 1980.

After considering careers in pharmaceuticals and government research, she decided instead that she wanted to remain in academia, describing it as “one of the few areas where there is complete freedom to study what I was interested in.”

Bennett then entered Harvard Medical School in order to pursue translational medicine, a branch that directly links laboratory research to clinical practice. Her insights into the human body, combined with her research experiences at UC Berkeley and Yale, enabled Bennett to investigate diseases’ mechanisms of disrupting homeostasis and to propose treatment methods, carried out on clinical patients. When asked why translational medicine, she said, “There is so much promise for helping the world understand and solve disease related issues.”

Bennett joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1988 and has remained there since, where she teaches upper level biology seminars and performs research in the arenas of stem cells and gene therapy. She remarked that, “it is so intuitive to me that one should treat diseases instead of placing band-aids over them – and that is why I am really excited about gene therapy.” She currently holds dual professorships as a professor of ophthalmology and a professor of cellular and developmental biology.

Over the course of her career, Bennett has encountered many false starts and growing pains, in part because of the novelty of gene therapy. “Ninety-nine percent of research is drudgery, but the one percent of seeing the results of an experiment is extremely rewarding and exciting,” she said, explaining why she has remained persistent in her field.

In a recent collaborative effort, Bennett made a groundbreaking discovery in the reversal of blindness in a canine model of a particular blinding disease in infants. She will soon extend this research to human clinical trials, where she foresees great promise.

As for advice, Bennett stresses that because Yale provides a unique environment where it is easy to get caught up in research or future career goals, it is important to take a step back once in a while and look at the entire picture. “It is important to be a human being and a scientist,” she said. “It is wonderful to be able to enjoy everything life has to offer.”