Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Susanna Greer of V Foundation for Cancer Research Is Helping To…

Posted on

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Susanna Greer of V Foundation for Cancer Research Is Helping To Change Our World

It’s more important to find a career where you do what you love and what you’re good at than to try and be the best. The first time I ever made a career decision based on what I what I was good at AND what I actually really liked doing was when I started my science communication consulting firm. Until then, all my career decisions: graduate school, post-doc, faculty-position were based on a sense of competition. On trying to be the ‘best.’ And here’s the thing, I’ll never, ever be the best at anything besides being Susanna. I was a real pain. I was so competitive, and while I’m sure it got me places, I also hurt people and that’s no way to live. And I’m sorry I didn’t learn that sooner.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susanna Fletcher Greer, PhD

Susanna Greer is the Chief Scientific Officer at the V Foundation for Cancer Research. In this role, Dr. Greer is a visionary ambassador of the V Foundation, who works with the V Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Committee to steer funding to the most promising research opportunities. An accomplished strategist, she develops and articulates priorities to enhance the V Foundation’s research portfolio, gifts, grants, and sponsorships that advance the V Foundation’s distinctive brand of cutting-edge and disruptive research.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was living my dream job as a professor at Georgia State University. I was a tenured cancer researcher. I loved everything about being a professor and researcher but as the years went on, and I moved up the professional academic and administrative ladder, and further and further from the lab bench, something was off. I had always loved science communication and missed the creative aspects of lab life I lived as a graduate student and postdoc when I was on the bench. To fill the creative void, and while still at Georgia State, I started a science communication consulting firm dedicated to helping researchers garner angel investor support for their inventions. Starting that firm was the beginning of a new career path for me. It turned out I loved helping other scientists launch their ideas and inventions into thriving companies just as much as seeing my own lab’s data published and those publications turn into grants. I was still affecting cancer research, but in bigger ways. I had found my next niche. Consulting led me to the non-profit world where I learned about grants administration, cancer research advocacy, intellectual property, relationship building with cancer patients and donors and had opportunities to communicate cancer research to audiences of all types. Becoming the first CSO at the V Foundation is an honor. The V Foundation’s mission aligns perfectly with my professional and personal goals. I am so lucky.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The V Foundation has a stellar reputation in the oncology community. I suspected before I became CSO that the V was funding the most outstanding cancer researchers in the United States. It’s been an awesome journey over the past 18 months leading a team to accumulate the data that proved my suspicions to be correct. The return on investment the V Foundation makes in the form of grants to cancer researchers is mind blowing. By way of example, the V Foundation has to date funded 1,258 researchers with $353M in investments from our incredible donors and partners. V Foundation researchers have in turn leveraged their grants to secure an additional 5,500 grants equaling over 19 BILLION dollars in research. Those numbers blow me away and are growing every day.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Before science communication was a thing, I’ve always loved talking about science and especially my own research. One thanksgiving when I was in graduate school, I excitedly shared the latest details of lab life with my extended family over our Thanksgiving dinner. I unfortunately included, in graphic and gory detail, how to dissect a rabbit to remove all of its lymph nodes, thymus and spleen, and how bloody the ‘surgery’ could be if done incorrectly. By the time I got to ‘grinding up the lymph nodes to remove the B cells…’ and was enthusiastically using a piece of dark meat, some peas and my fork as part of a ‘demonstration’, everyone had pretty much stopped eating and my Mom announced I had ‘ruined Thanksgiving.’ I learned several things that day, #1, not everything needs to be shared with everyone, #2, framing and audience matters, and #3, enthusiasm for science and research is catching, but language and style is important.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Academic research is an incredibly demanding career. Following a PhD or MD (or both), then a postdoctoral fellowship, a residency (or both), a scientist starts a career in cancer research in academia with little except for a job offer as an assistant professor, novel ideas, a start-up package of funding, an empty lab (if a wet lab scientist), and a ticking clock to obtain extramural research funding. The first few years are tough. We are trained in graduate school and during fellowships to be researchers, but not often to be the communicators, managers, teachers, accountants, lawyers, and therapists the job being lab principal investigator/lab leader needs. To ease this transition from trainee to boss, the V Foundation focuses a majority of our funding in the early career space. We launch careers by funding high risk, high reward research based on outstanding projects, people, and their potential for impact on cancer.

But if not for academic researchers in oncology, there would be no new advances in cancer prevention, detection, treatment, thrivership or palliative care. There certainly would be no discussion or hope for cancer ‘cures.’ Cancer will affect all of us, so the net is that V Foundation benefits all of us. For funded researchers, the impact is enormous. From V Grantee Dr. Andrea Viale, MD, “The V Foundation had a huge impact on my research by supporting a very groundbreaking study early on. These types of studies are too risky to be funded by other funding mechanisms and, although innovative, are usually left behind as not fundable. The V Foundation took the gamble and funded my group at a critical time. With the support of the V foundation, we were not only able to complete the initial program, but we generated enough compelling data to apply for major agency grants to further continue our work in this area of investigation.”

This year the V Foundation for Cancer Research announced a new funding initiative, A Grant of Her Own, to help counteract longstanding gender disparities in research. In 2023, the V Foundation funded $8M in the groundbreaking work of 11 women scientists. In 2024, we have budgeted $10M for this mechanism. Women researchers have faced substantial pay gaps in comparison to their male colleagues, and they encounter a funding difference of 38% less to support their research. The pandemic placed caregiving burdens on female researchers, leading to less time in the lab and long-term impacts for women in cancer research. Rather than just recognizing these disparities and wringing our hands, the V Foundation has incorporated a funding program that will increase funding for individuals identifying as female for the foreseeable future.

In a similar story of recognition of disparity followed by sustained action, V Foundation and ESPN set up the Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund in memory of beloved ESPN sportscaster Stuart Scott after he passed away from cancer in 2015. Stuart was a champion for cancer research and was especially motivated to improve outcomes for African Americans and underserved communities disproportionately affected by cancer. African Americans have a higher overall death rate from cancer than all other racial and ethnic groups in the United States. This is not a new development, nor has the Stuart Scott fund made the disparity go away. But what the fund has done is allow the V Foundation to fund 31 early career investigators with V Scholar Grants. Again, rather than just wringing our hands, we are working to close gaps in the cancer workforce and in cancer care.

A common thread in our funding models is in the impact of the V Foundation on the cancer workforce: just as cancer will impact all of us, we need the best of us researching cancer, and that means all of us. I am honored to lead the V Foundation’s scientific mission.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Instead, I’ll let V Foundation grantees speak for themselves:

Dr. Tanja Gruber, MD, PhD — Stanford University, “Funding from the V Foundation made preclinical studies on new treatment approaches for high-risk infants with leukemia possible. It laid the groundwork for a clinical trial in these patients with promising results. We are building on this therapeutic approach with a successor study that is launching in the spring of 2023. Our long-term goal is to cure every infant with leukemia.”

Dr. Justin Milner, PhD — University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, “The V Scholar Award has propelled my research program into the exciting and clinically relevant area of engineering immune responses to combat cancer. The primary focus of our proposal is to engineer T cells, immune cells capable of killing tumors, with functional attributes that make them extremely potent and durable. In the next 3–5 years, this work could be translated to enhance immunotherapy approaches for pancreatic cancer patients, and in the long-term, our fundamental findings may be broadly applied to improve immunotherapy treatments for many types of solid malignancies.”

Dr. Moon Chen, Jr., PhD- University of California Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, “I am extremely grateful to the V Foundation for this award to conduct a comparative effectiveness study to substantially increase lung cancer screening (LCS). LCS is the least utilized cancer screening procedure but yet has the greatest potential for saving lives because lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. I anticipate that findings from the V Foundation will accelerate the uptake of lung cancer screening (3–5 years) and in the long-term reduce avoidable mortality that may be attributed to the missed opportunities in lung cancer screening.”

Dr. Patricia Jones, MD- University of Miami, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, “Funding from the V Foundation Early Career Investigator Award has advanced my career by enabling me to focus more of my attention on improving healthcare delivery, which is critically important to patients and caregivers. By understanding the needs of patients and caregivers, we can create a navigation program that identifies and addresses patient- and system-level factors contributing to suboptimal outcomes in vulnerable patients. We will implement the final intervention in our center in a larger sample of patients in the short term and we will adapt our intervention to other centers located strategically throughout the United States in the long term.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Cancer is a community challenge and can be very lonely. Take care of each other. The worst thing we can do when someone is facing a cancer diagnosis is withdraw out of fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Reach out. Offer to take make food, do yard work, walk the dog, baby sit the kids, read a book, give rides to treatment, or just hold someone’s hand. I can promise you this: someday cancer will come for you or someone you love. Be ready by being a good example to your community of how to give care through cancer.
  2. Advocate for funding for cancer research. Non-profit organizations like the V Foundations fund only a small portion of the cancer research in the United States. While non-profits can fund more ‘high-risk, high reward’ research, we depend on the National Institutes of Health, which is funded by the government, to fund a majority of cancer grants. Without sustained funding, researchers will have to make difficult career decisions, and cancer patients, with fewer researchers in academic research, will be left with a reduced pipeline of new methods of cancer detection, devices and drugs. This is not a future cancer patient deserve.
  3. It should go without saying, but in case it doesn’t: Go to and donate to the V Foundation. Thanks to an incredible endowment from ESPN, 100% of your donation goes to research, and you have my word, we will invest every cent wisely.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Trust, accountability, and hard work resonate with me in leaders. I am a natural optimist and love to have fun, but to me being a leader also means being ready to put your head down and work hard. My Pop has been my greatest teacher, and he was the very definition of a leader. Despite his humble beginnings, Herman Fletcher was a respected leader in the Georgia educational system. My Pop grew up in poverty, the youngest child of a father who was a south Georgia sharecropper and alcoholic. Strike two for my Pop was a congenital eye deformity that left him nearly blind from birth. Salvation came in the form of a high school counselor who recognized potential and helped Pop apply not only for college, but also for the scholarships that would make escape possible. Fast forward through a career that saw Pop become a beloved teacher who led efforts to desegregate the Savannah, GA school systems, a beloved middle school principal, and eventually the superintendent of middle schools in Coweta County, GA. I always wondered how my father could possibly have the positive outlook he did coming from his circumstances where he had no coat in the winter and missed school to pick cotton. But to him, no child was unsalvageable; he believed in everyone, worked harder than anyone, and was always ready with a joke. Life is hard and serious, he was offered a second chance and believed everyone deserved the same. The recipe for being a good leader isn’t complicated: do the best you can and treat others the way you want to be treated.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. You are going to be just fine. When I was a brand-new assistant professor at Georgia State, I remember sitting on the floor of my huge, empty lab and thinking, “I have no friends here. I don’t know anyone. I will never be as happy as I was when I was a postdoc. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to teach. I don’t know how to run a lab.” I ‘should’ have been so excited, I had my dream job, but I was completely overwhelmed. Imposter syndrome is real. It gets the best of us when we least expect it. I wish I had known to give myself time and grace. Since then, I’ve learned that if I was happy and successful where I was, I have the skills and tenacity to be happy and successful where I am going. It’s going to be ok girl, you’ve got this.

2. It’s more important to find a career where you do what you love and what you’re good at than to try and be the best. The first time I ever made a career decision based on what I what I was good at AND what I actually really liked doing was when I started my science communication consulting firm. Until then, all my career decisions: graduate school, post-doc, faculty-position were based on a sense of competition. On trying to be the ‘best.’ And here’s the thing, I’ll never, ever be the best at anything besides being Susanna. I was a real pain. I was so competitive, and while I’m sure it got me places, I also hurt people and that’s no way to live. And I’m sorry I didn’t learn that sooner.

3. Don’t be afraid to hire people smarter than you. I’m great at some things, ok at others, terrible at a ton of things (for example: do not ask me directions, under any circumstances, ever). One thing I am good at is recognizing other’s gifts and encouraging them to use them. It’s an awesome feeling to watch a colleague succeed and a fantastic way to build killer teams.

4. Stand up for what you believe in, you’ll never regret doing the right thing. Underdogs are easy to come by, certainly in science and absolutely in oncology where disparities reign. I sometimes wonder if all the effort to make a difference matters, but that’s not an experiment I’m willing to conduct. And if we all try, together our efforts start to really add up. It’s like throwing pebbles into the Grand Canyon, sooner or later, we’ll start to make a big pile too hard to ignore.

5. Your mentors will become your friends and will be in your life forever, so choose them wisely. As a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, I respected and often feared my advisors. I had so much respect for them, but never once considered them as future friends. As I grew older and grew up, our relationships changed, and we became colleagues and eventually friends. I had fortunately chosen well and picked advisors who were not only great scientists, but also amazing humans. They’ve helped me make every single career decision since they’ve been my sounding boards, my guides. I am grateful for them, for their wisdom and friendship. What if I had made different decisions? Many of my friends in science were not so lucky.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would take the ‘fear’ away from a cancer diagnosis. I want people to know that the V Foundation is funding incredible cancer researchers whose research spans all cancers and all patient journeys. I would of course want them to help us meet our audacious goal of becoming the largest nonprofit funder of cancer research. It seems so obvious to me: we fund the best of the best and 100% of every dollar goes to research. It’s an easy sell. And it’s easy to find us at I said it once, I’ll say it a million times: I promise we won’t let you down.

But there’s also this: cancer can be really lonely. Cancer patients and their families need more than research, they need support, they need relationships, friendships, human contact. A supportive circle of friends. I want every one of us to call, text, email the person/s we know with cancer and offer to help, today. I know you’ve been putting it off. Cancer ghosting is real, and we’ve got to stop it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Yeah, that’s easy. I love the quote from Katherine Hepburn, “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun!” It could easy in cancer research to get bogged down thinking about the challenges, suffering and progress we still need to make. But I also know how hard researchers, clinicians, patients, families, the V Foundation, and so many other awesome funders around the world are working on behalf of the cancer community. I choose to have some fun, even if it means getting in trouble now and then. I’m only going to tell you so much, but I will say that the Greer lab Georgia State knew how to have a good time. It’s November, which reminds me of the lab’s holiday traditions. We hung stockings in the lab from the ceiling that were hand (and horribly) decorated for every lab member, had holiday lights, a tree decorated with bad data, and about 10 awful holiday decorations that would play music when you walked by. It was non-denominational, all traditions welcome and so, so much fun. None of this silliness of course was allowed by Health and Safety and every year we would get inspected and I would get cited until I guess they finally gave up. Eventually we just kept the lights and bad data tree up year-round. It was pink and tinsel and so ugly and sad. I’m laughing now thinking of what the other faculty members must have thought of me. But that’s ok, you do you and I’ll do me.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I dream of meeting First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. Her impact and interest in oncology is a place of obvious overlap, and I’m all about a powerhouse female leader. An opportunity to discuss Biden’s recent momentum in their Cancer Moonshot Initiative and to discuss ways to continue their impact after President Biden’s term ends would be incredible.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me on LinkedIn @ where I share updates on what VF researchers are up to! They are incredible, and I love sharing their research progress and impact. Please find me, I’d love to chat!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Susanna Greer of V Foundation for Cancer Research Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.