Remembering Heidi Dvinge

September 26, 2019 By Kelly April Tyrrell

On September 20, 2019, University of Wisconsin–Madison Professor of Biomolecular Chemistry Heidi Dvinge passed away unexpectedly. Her colleagues describe her tragic loss as “devastating.”

Dvinge had been on campus for a little more than two years, but in that time, she built a number of meaningful collaborations, inside and out of her department, Biomolecular Chemistry, and the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

Photo: Portrait of Heidi Dvinge working at lab bench

Heidi Dvinge’s research program was dedicated to understanding how aberrant RNA processing contributes to diseases such as cancer, and how these changes might be exploited to allow new therapies. Photo: Robin Davies

“We started working together on some grant submissions even before she got here,” says Ruth O’Regan, professor of medicine at SMPH. “She was just an incredibly collaborative and smart person.”

Joshua Lang describes hitting it off with Dvinge immediately during an early visit she paid to campus before joining the faculty.

“We discussed ways her work and my work would intersect,” says Lang, professor of medicine at SMPH. “We met every few months as she was getting her lab set up and we would talk about ways to take her ideas and use them to identify those phenomena not just in cell cultures or a dish, but to find something very translational and relevant for patients with breast cancer.”

Dvinge’s research centered on the cellular mechanisms that drive cancer cells. With Lang and O’Regan, she was helping elucidate similarities between some types of breast cancer and prostate cancer.

She hailed from Aarhus, the second-largest city in Denmark, and studied biochemical engineering as an undergraduate at the Technical University of Denmark, near Copenhagen. She initially thought she would study molecular biology but in school she discovered a passion for math, statistics and programming.

In 2010, she completed a Ph.D. in computational biology at the University of Cambridge, in England, before moving to Seattle to complete a postdoc at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. There, she gained laboratory experience so she could learn how to generate her own data for computational analysis.

“She excelled beyond what we expected of her. She was someone we all thought would be a prominent person within the cancer center.”

Ruth O’Regan

She was attracted to UW–Madison because of the institution’s reputation for studying RNA, the genetic message coded by DNA that instructs cells which proteins to make in order to function, and because of its reputation as a place that valued and fostered collaboration. Department of Biomolecular Chemistry Chair and Professor Tricia Kiley says that in addition to her work on cancer, Dvinge regularly interacted with other RNA researchers and computational biologists, which made her unique.

“We were very fortunate to recruit her and very excited when she decided to come here, and then she excelled beyond what we expected of her,” O’Regan says.She was someone we all thought would be a prominent person within the cancer center.”

Dvinge’s research program at UW–Madison was dedicated to understanding how aberrant RNA processing contributes to diseases such as cancer, and how these changes might be exploited to allow new therapies.

“If you could construct someone who had the unique talents to transform the next generation of human genetics and genomics, Heidi was the perfect fit. She was the quintessential scholar,” says Emery Bresnick, director of the UW–Madison Blood Research Program at SMPH, and a leader of the UW Carbone Cancer Center’s Genetics and Epigenetics Program. “She had the knowledge and ability to conduct science involving big data, but at the same time, she had finesse for experimental science in the lab — a very rare combination.”

Dvinge was also “a really dedicated mentor to her graduate students,” Kiley says and was valued by students, faculty and staff in her department. She was a faculty mentor in the Integrated Program in Biochemistry, the Graduate Program in Cellular and Molecular Biology, and in the Genetics Ph.D. Program.

Her communication skills stood out, too, O’Regan says: “Heidi was really remarkable at taking something quite complicated and making it understandable.”

“If you could construct someone who had the talent to contribute to the next generation of human genomics and genetics, Heidi was the perfect fit. She was ideal.”

Emery Bresnick

Earlier this year, Dvinge participated in the Wisconsin Idea Seminar in order to get to know Wisconsin better — a testament, Kiley says, to “how much enthusiasm she had, putting her whole heart and soul into her job.”

In a memory she shared after Dvinge’s passing, Professor of Biomolecular Chemistry Catherine Fox wrote: “Her exuberance never came off as self-involved, but rather as an experience she was inviting you to share. She was a wonderful and inspiring young scientist that I will always be grateful was my colleague, even if it was for too short a time.”

Dvinge was an inspiration to many and Lang believes she left the kind of mark that will motivate others to carry her legacy forward.

“Every once in a while, you meet a researcher who identifies complex phenomena and comes up with elegant experiments to test what they found,” says Lang. “Heidi had a passion that made you want to tackle the same thing with her and want to innovate.”

“She was an absolutely wonderful person,” he adds. “It was impossible not to be inspired when you met with Heidi.”

More information about a memorial for Dvinge will be provided soon. Members of the UW–Madison community are invited to share their memories and tributes to Heidi here: https://www.med.wisc.edu/news-and-events/2019/september/remembering-heidi-dvinge/, or by emailing them to SMPH: smphweb@uwhealth.org.