Pace, Betty

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Betty Pace


Physician, medical researcher, educator

Dr. Betty Pace set her sights on finding a cure for sickle-cell disease after witnessing as a child the pain and suffering it caused her best friend. Since the age of 12, Pace has kept her mind focused on her goal. Named one of the Brilliant Ten by Popular Science magazine in 2004, Pace was close to reaching her goal, as she was recognized as one of the top medical researchers and physicians working toward a cure for sickle cell anemia. She and her colleagues predicted in the early 2000s that they were within a decade of finding it.

Driven to Find a Cure

Betty Sue Buckley was born in 1954 in Enterprise, Mississippi, the tenth child of Andrew and Ora Buckley. By the time she was two, the Buckleys had moved to Racine, Wisconsin, where the family grew to 15 children. Andrew Buckley worked at a foundry and Ora Buckley busied herself caring for her growing brood. The Baptist faith grounded the family, especially through gospel music. The Buckley children took turns at the family piano in the evenings as the others sang. Pace and her sisters even brought in extra money singing professionally for a time as the Buckley Sisters.

As a youth Pace discovered her calling. A close friend of hers, Phyllis Sanders, suffered from sickle cell disease. Sickle cell anemia is an inherited blood disorder that distorts red blood cells into a sickle shape, which ultimately block the arteries and deny the body's organs of oxygen. The disease causes sufferers to feel bouts of tremendous pain and makes them susceptible to contracting infections. Pace saw that Sanders' disease made her weak and frail. Sanders missed many days of school and broke bones easily because of it. Pace also knew that the disease was deadly; one of Sanders' brothers died from it at age four.

When she was 12 years old, Pace found herself at Sanders' bedside, where she witnessed her friend struggling with the pain of the disease. At the sight of her friend's suffering, Pace remembered to Kitta MacPherson of the Star Ledger that "all she could do was cry." "It's just one of those things in life that made such an impression on me," Pace noted on her faculty page at the University of Texas at Dallas Web site. "From that point on," she determined that "… when I grew up I'd do sickle cell research."

Took Deliberate Steps Toward Goal

Her goal was honorable on its own terms, but even more so because to achieve it Pace had to chart her own course. No one in Pace's family had ever gone to college, even though Andrew Buckley had long encouraged his children to look to education as a way to improve their lot in life. And when Pace graduated from high school, few of the African-American girls living in Racine, Wisconsin, even tried to enroll in college. Nevertheless Pace had always done well in school, especially in math and science, and she was determined. Her sister Della Buckley remembered Pace's decision to leave Racine "as one of the most amazing things Betty did," according to the Star Ledger.

By 1976 Pace had taken her first step; she had earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Not long after that achievement, Pace continued her quest. She reasoned that a medical degree would help. She earned admission to the one medical school she applied to: The Medical College of Wisconsin. With her medical degree in hand by 1981, Pace began practicing medicine at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, completing a pediatric residency there in 1984. She then joined the faculty of the Medical College of Wisconsin as assistant professor and as medical director of the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Program. During her tenure as director of the Sickle Cell Program, Pace brought in significant amounts of state funding and started a statewide neonatal screening program for sickle cell disease.

Her work in medicine to this point was admirable, but Pace remained focused on her original goal to find a cure. By the late 1980s, Pace was ready to take the next step in her journey: to hone her skills as a researcher. The step had been in her plans all along. "I have always loved science and research, even when I was in medical school," Pace told the Medical College of Wisconsin: Alumni News. "In fact, I wish I would have gone the MD/PhD route of training. I knew I wanted to do research related to sickle-cell disease from the start, but I felt I needed to learn to care for patients as well." She explained that by learning and practicing patient care she hoped to be able to quicken the transference of her research to clinical settings and the improvement of patient care. Through a fellowship training program at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Pace became an expert on children's blood disorders in 1987. In the early 1990s she took a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she completed her research training in medical genetics under the direction of one of the world's leaders in hemoglobin research, Dr. George Stamatoyannopoulos.

Put Plan into Action

After completing her fellowship Pace put her plan into action. She moved to Mobile, Alabama, in 1994 to become the associate director of pediatrics at the University of South Alabama's Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center. The center was among ten in the nation funded by the National Institutes for Health. There, Pace set up a laboratory that not only sought a cure for sickle cell anemia, but also trained researchers. In 1999, Pace led the charge to develop the nation's first telemedicine network for sickle cell anemia information. The network—which would offer specialized, timely medical information via electronic means to people in remote or rural areas—served nine counties with medical services, family counseling, and health education by 2000. The outreach provided by the network was especially important, as Pace explained to Modern Healthcare, because she credited education about available treatments as the driving force behind the decrease in mortality among younger patients.

At a Glance …

Born Betty Sue Buckley on May 1, 1954, in Enterprise, MS; married Joseph Pace II (second marriage), 2000; children: Fe Aunté and Nia (first marriage), Joseph III (second marriage). Education: Marquette University, mathematics, BS, 1976; Medical College of Wisconsin, MD, 1981; University of Colorado, pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship, 1987; University of Washington, Postdoctoral Fellow in molecular biology, 1991–94.

Career: Medical College of Wisconsin, clinical instructor of pediatrics, 1984–86; Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center, Milwaukee, WI, associate medical director, 1984–85; Medical College of Wisconsin, assistant professor of pediatrics, division of hematology/oncology, 1986–87; University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL, assistant professor, department of structural and cellular biology, 1994–2000; University of South Alabama Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center, Mobile, AL, associate director of pediatrics, 1994–2000; Sickle Cell Disease Research Center, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX, associate director, 2001–03; University of Texas at Dallas, professor of molecular and cell biology, 2001–; University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, voluntary clinical staff, 2001–; Sickle Cell Disease Research Center, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX, director, 2004–.

Awards: Kaiser Foundation Merit Award, 1981; Mosby Mirror Award, 1981; Popular Science, named one of the "Brilliant Ten" US scientists, 2003; Racine, WI, Dr. Pace Day, 2003.

Addresses: Office—Sickle Cell Disease Research Center, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, P.O. Box 830688, FO 31, Richardson, TX 75083-0688.

Soon the development of the first NIH sickle cell center in the Southwest intrigued Pace and some colleagues in Alabama enough to make the move to Dallas, Texas. The center was created as a collaboration of University of Texas at Dallas, University of Texas Southwestern, and Children's Medical Center of Dallas. In her first years in Texas, Pace served as associate director and a member of the voluntary clinical staff at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and as professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Texas at Dallas. The Sickle Cell Disease Research Center opened in 2001, and by 2004 Pace was its director.

It was in 2003 that Pace made headlines, though. That year Popular Science magazine honored her as one of the "Brilliant Ten" for her innovative efforts to find a cure for sickle-cell disease. Rather than continue to search for a way to splice a person's genes to eradicate the disease, Pace and her colleagues had begun to investigate ways of getting the body to heal itself. She searched for ways of activating a gene in the body that normally only works in fetuses. The fetal hemoglobin gene helps fetuses obtain oxygen from their mother's bloodstream. It shuts off after birth. In the blood of adults, fetal hemoglobin prevents the blood problems associated with sickle cell anemia, even if the sickle-cell gene is present. Given this information, Pace searched for a way to make the fetal hemoglobin gene work after birth. She succeeded in 2003, when she found a protein to activate the fetal hemoglobin gene in a cell culture. Since then, her research has focused on preparing for trials in animals and eventually in humans. She predicted a cure within ten years.

The vigor and single-minded focus with which Pace tackles her work has astounded people. But Pace has never forgotten her childhood friend. Phyllis Sanders died at age 41, but not before she had lost a second brother to the disease. When Pace returned to Racine to be honored with Dr. Pace Day in 2003, she met with Sanders' parents, who "were really encouraged that I'm still doing research on sickle cell disease," she told Popular Science. So when people ask Pace "How do you spend your whole life doing nothing but sickle cell disease?" She says: "Answering a simple research question takes a long time, but I'm up to the task," as she explained on the University of Texas at Dallas Web site. She certainly seems to be.

Selected writings


Renaissance of Sickle Cell Disease Research in the Genome Era, World Scientific, 2006.



Modern Healthcare, May 22, 2000, p. 35.

Popular Science, September 2003, p. 90.


"Alumna Profile: Betty S. Pace, MD '81, GME '84," Medical College of Wisconsin: Alumni News, (October 13, 2006).

"Faculty Profile: Betty Pace," Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Texas Dallas, (October 13, 2006).

"PopSci's 2nd Annual Brilliant 10," Popular Science, (October 13, 2006).

"Sickle Cell Work Lets Her Avenge Friend's Suffering," The Star Ledger:, (October 27, 2006).

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Pace, Betty

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