By Kate Helm
Science is often controversial—stem cells, contraception, and HIV. And it’s often the people affected by those issues who get lost amid the politically and emotionally charged debates. That’s why Laneta Dorflinger ’75, distinguished scientist and vice president of FHI 360, keeps her head down and lets science speak for itself.
“I try to stay out of the politics and focus on bringing a scientific base to each issue,” says Dorflinger, a technical leader/director for contraceptive technology development and introduction activities at FHI 360, a global development organization headquartered in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
Dorflinger and her husband, Dr. Mark L. Graham II, practice founder of Waverly Hematology and Oncology in Cary, N.C., will present separate seminars at Lafayette Thursday, Oct. 20. At 12:15 p.m., Graham will present “Modern Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment” in Jaqua Auditorium (Room 103), Hugel Science Center. At 4:15 p.m., Dorflinger will present “Reproductive Science: Expanding Choice, Empowering Women, Securing the Future” in Room 104, Kirby Hall of Civil Rights. The events, sponsored by the Health Professions Advising Program, are open to the public.
“For example, one cannot argue with the evidence that appropriate birth spacing can reduce maternal, neonatal, and child mortality,” she says. “Access to contraceptives is a critical step to achieving longer birth intervals.”
Dorflinger also is director of the Preventative Technologies Agreement, a global program to characterize safety and effectiveness of microbicides and oral pre-exposure prophylaxis, expand understanding of the correlation between HIV prevention technology and behavior, and improve service delivery models for family planning and HIV prevention.
Dorflinger’s days are full, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
She thinks about the women she’s helped lead better, richer lives like one she met in Kenya in the late 1980s. Traveling with a physician who provided family planning services at rural health posts, Dorflinger managed a program that funded the delivery of a new five-year contraceptive implant.
“Women came from great distances to get family planning services at these health posts, many of them taking a whole day to do so,” she explains. “I could hardly believe how challenging it was for them to get the services I took for granted.”
“When the doctor told a woman with a large number of children who I was, she got very excited and thanked me for helping her,” Dorflinger recalls. “This moment reinforced my commitment to the work I was doing. The research I’ve been involved with during my career has expanded availability and access to new contraceptive technologies for women in low-resource, developing countries.”
While Dorflinger has worked with FHI 360 in various capacities since 1991, it wasn’t always clear she’d make a career in the field.
After earning her chemistry degree from Lafayette, she entered Yale as a neurophysiology graduate student. It was a Yale reproductive physiology course that sparked her passion and ultimately led to a shift in her career aspirations. After earning master’s and doctoral degrees at Yale and completing a post-doctoral fellowship, she worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development before moving to FHI 360.
A quick glance at Dorflinger’s résumé reveals a long list of publications. The first entry is a collaboration with Joseph Sherma, Larkin Professor of Chemistry Emeritus. She credits her chemistry education and his mentorship with helping her create a solid foundation for her future research.
A summer research experience at Brown University turned out to be a pivotal moment not only for her own development as a researcher but for future Lafayette students. Dorflinger applied for a National Science Foundation fellowship, which made the experience financially feasible for her family. Brown offered her a graduate position, and while she eventually decided on Yale, she remembered the doors the fellowship opened.
A trustee emerita and active alumna, Dorflinger saw many Lafayette students in similar situations—they wanted to do summer research but couldn’t afford it. Always looking for solutions to problems, she and Graham founded the Dorflinger Summer Research Fund, named in honor of her parents.
“Many opportunities open up when the right connections are made,” she says. “Mark and I decided to start the summer research fund to provide support for students doing research with top-notch scientists, ideally at some of the best graduate schools, with the goal of creating opportunities for them to get into highly competitive graduate programs.”
Dorflinger served on the Board of Trustees from 1988-2003 and is a member of Council of Lafayette Women. Despite a demanding work and family schedule, she remains committed to helping the next generation of Lafayette students.
“I enjoy every moment I’m back on campus,” she says. “Lafayette has given much more to me than I have given back to it. I think it’s important for successful graduates to give back to the College, and one way to do that is by sharing experiences and mentoring students. My only regret is that I’m not able to do more!”
Graham earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard and his medical degree at Mayo Medical School, Rochester, Minn. He completed his residency in internal medicine at Duke University Medical Center and fellowships in cell biology at Mayo Clinic and hematology-oncology and clinical pharmacology at University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. He served on the faculty at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for 14 years. He has published and lectured extensively in hematology/oncology with an emphasis on breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. In private practice in Cary, N.C., his work centers on breast and colon cancer genetics, clinical trials, and the use of circulating tumor cells to improve treatment approaches.