Bringing Creative Flair to Stem Cell Research: Meet Kay Unger


NYSCF Board Member Kay Unger may be best known for her eponymous brand and trailblazing career in fashion, but she’s also an inspiring advocate for biomedical research, bringing fresh perspective and innovative ideas to NYSCF’s Board as we push the most promising science forward. Like many members of the NYSCF community, Kay’s life has been touched by disease, and she has responded by becoming an ardent supporter of advanced medical research.

We spoke with Kay about her time as a Board member, about the importance of inspiring the next generation of young scientists, and about what she hopes to see in the future of disease research and treatment.

How did you learn about NYSCF and what made you want to get involved?

I have known [fellow NYSCF Board member] Paul Goldberger since the ‘70s – he was at one time Dean of Parsons School of Design, where I am a Trustee and Chair Emerita, and he did a review of an apartment I had designed along with architects at Gwathmey Siegel. I worked very closely with him at Parsons, and got to know his wife, [NYSCF CEO] Susan Solomon during this time. 

I started going to NYSCF’s events and learning about all its different initiatives through the Gala & Science Fair, and I found the research fascinating, especially because a lot of diseases that NYSCF works on are personal to me. My mom had macular degeneration, which is hereditary, so I thought that perhaps it would be something that would affect me or my brother. I also had cancer when I was 16 years old, which definitely changed my life. Since then, I have always supported cancer research: I am on the Board of the City of Hope Hospital and throughout my 50-year career, I’ve always allocated 10% of every personal appearance to cancer research or care. Additionally, my ex-husband was diagnosed five years ago with Alzheimer’s. His mother had it, his brothers had it, and he got it at a relatively early age, so I kept thinking about my sons and their kids, and what could be done to better understand and treat that disease. I’ve also been touched by type 2 diabetes.

After I initially got involved, Susan asked me if I wanted to join the Board, but I was hesitant, because I don’t know much about science. ‘How could I possibly help?’ I thought. But Susan assured me that because I’m energetic and creative, I might be able to help provide perspective on how to engage people like me: those who aren’t scientists but want to make a difference. And actually, Margo [Alexander] was the one who convinced me, through her personal story and commitment, to join the Board, and I’ve loved it ever since. 

What has been the most rewarding part of your time on the Board?

I have really enjoyed speaking to some of our newer Board members such as Clyde [Williams] and Derrick [Rossi], both of whom are really remarkable, and having one-on-one discussions with them has been very illuminating. Learning from the expertise of everyone on the Board has been so rewarding.

Also, being able to help others with their endeavors has been exciting. For example, I’ve helped connect [fellow Board member] Francesco Clark with production companies in the beauty industry to help him scale up his business [Clark’s Botanicals]. Just being around like-minded people with similar desires and interests is pretty fantastic.

What makes you excited about the future of disease research?

I think using stem cells as human avatars to be able to study in the laboratory how a disease affects them, and also to integrate all of this fantastic robotic technology to explore what causes disease and find new treatments is remarkable. And to do all of it with human cells instead of with mice who don’t get human diseases is exciting as well. I have so much hope for the future. I’ve lost close friends to disease and seen their battles, and I really think approaching disease research in this way is going to change how we treat patients.

How has the past year shaped your perspective on science and medicine?

The way we talk about science and the storytelling aspect of it really came to the forefront this year, illuminating that we must better communicate science so that people understand its importance and trust it. I’ve also started thinking more about the intersection of climate change with the pandemic. I think climate change impacted how COVID-19 spread, and will lead to future pandemic outbreaks. We have to live more sustainably if we want to prevent that.

Along those lines, I also think about how NYSCF pivoted to address COVID-19 and how we have to be ready to tackle diseases that we don’t even know about yet. We will also need to understand the effects COVID-19 had, and will continue to have, on the other diseases NYSCF studies, because it certainly impacts all of them.

How do you see student education and mentorship shaping the future of science?

I think education is probably the most important aspect of every field, especially for young students. I have such smart grandkids, and I want to expose them to science when they’re 7 or 8 so that they can understand the change they could make in the world and possibly discover a passion for it. Having students tour the labs [as NYSCF often does] and see what’s possible will, I think, give them a different lens through which to view their education and their choices. Opening young students’ minds to what’s possible is just so critical for inspiring that next generation.

What would you say to someone who is thinking about getting involved with and/or supporting NYSCF?

I think a lot of people might think, like I did, that there’s not much they can do to help, but there is. Everyone has been touched by disease in one way or another: I know very few families who haven’t been affected by cancer, and we were all certainly affected by COVID-19. Even just listening to the chats and panels NYSCF puts on shows that there’s a lot of exciting research happening, and even just by committing to educating ourselves and our kids, we can make a big difference. There are many ways to help, and even the smallest bit goes toward really important work.

Cover photo credit: Women’s Wear Daily

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