It started in high school for Kelly Hagman ’98. In a biology class lecture, her teacher began a new discussion topic: genetics. Hagman was intrigued by the nuances of humans’ inherited characteristics and was fascinated with how eye color, one of the most complex of our hereditary traits, is passed from parent to child. This influential lesson marked the beginning of a lifelong journey of discovery for her.
When considering college choices, The Claremont Colleges were already on Hagman’s radar; her uncle had attended Harvey Mudd College, and her great uncle had attended Pomona College. She discovered that Scripps was the perfect fit. As a biology major, Hagman found value in being a woman in science while attending a women’s college. “At Scripps, I cultivated an understanding of feminism in the context of my career aspirations.”
The vibrant and welcoming community at the College allowed Hagman to excel in her academic ventures. She spent many hours at the W.M. Keck Science Center and reflects on her time with thesis adviser and mentor Professor of Biology Emeritus David Sadava. Dr. Sadava’s confidence in Hagman’s abilities encouraged her intellectual curiosity. “I was able to take ownership in my own scientific discovery,” Hagman says. “And, I still draw upon that knowledge today. My undergraduate thesis was instrumental in shaping my career.”
After graduation, Hagman spent time at as a molecular genetics research associate City of Hope, a world-class cancer treatment and research center, before moving to Argentina to learn Spanish and then to Arizona to earn her master’s in genetic counseling at the University of Arizona. The program prepared her well for a job in the genetic testing lab at City of Hope where Hagman discovered an interest in DNA sequencing technologies which could aid scientists’ understanding of the human genome. With this information, Hagman and other scientists could detect whether an individual’s DNA is predetermined for diseases or genetic anomalies. Her strong scientific background ultimately led Hagman to her current role as director of clinical genomics at Ambry Genetics. She leads a team of genetic counselors who analyze and report the DNA findings in patients and families who seek possible solutions to a variety of genetic diseases. Hagman’s work is truly life-changing.
“We have been able to find the underlying cause of many genetic diseases that were unsolvable until now,” she says. “There are so many amazing stories where we were able to diagnose children, allowing them to receive targeted therapies and avoid further expenses and invasive tests.”
Hagman is currently the co-chair of the National Society of Genetic Counselors Genomic Technologies Special Interest Group and has more than 40 peer-reviewed publications in molecular genetics. She credits much of her success to Scripps, hard work, and a piece of advice from a legendary physicist.
“Albert Einstein said of himself that he wasn’t naturally brilliant,” Hagman says. “He just utilized his resources well. And, I felt the same of myself. My best friend reminded me of this before embarking on my job at Ambry. During my first two weeks, I spent several hours each night studying the new technology and becoming well-versed. That advice was important and inspiring to me—we all have the power and tools to learn anything we desire.”