Jennifer Raab’s journey from academia to ‘rustic, cowboy things’ and stem cell research

The former Hunter College president is now leading the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

Former Hunter College President Jennifer Raab, now president and CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, stands outside the nonprofit’s research lab at its headquarters on Manhattan’s West Side.

Former Hunter College President Jennifer Raab, now president and CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, stands outside the nonprofit’s research lab at its headquarters on Manhattan’s West Side. Ralph R. Ortega

Former Hunter College President Jennifer Raab just after the start of the new year took on a new assignment as CEO and president of the New York Stem Cell Foundation. It was an intriguing opportunity for Raab, who told City & State that she was drawn to the position by the science and research underway at the nonprofit. Raab, who was known for her robust fundraising efforts at Hunter, now plans to help raise funding for the foundation as it embarks on an ambitious plan to expand its research and use of stem cells to help find cures for diseases like type 1 diabetes. 

City & State caught up with Raab at her office in the foundation’s research facility on Manhattan’s West Side to talk about her life after Hunter, how she was convinced to take on a new role and the impact she expects the nonprofit to have on what she calls “miracle biology.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was it like stepping down after 22 years, now in retrospect?

I thought stepping down would be a transition, but I found that I love to work. I think the first few people who said, “Congratulations on your retirement,” got a not-so-pleasant look. And I realized I was reacting to “I still have a lot more,” you know, an energy for the next chapter. I love to take institutions forward. It's just in my DNA.

I missed that and having a challenge and a vision to have a bigger idea. I love impact. So I stay involved, always mentoring students from Hunter and from other places. I love to help people think about what their next steps are. But I also missed the everydayness of an organization that had a vision to make this world – the city particularly – a better place. So it's been wonderful to be back in a position where you have goals and a dream to really make this world a better place.

There was no extended vacation trip around the world?

I decided that I would do something different. We went on a pack trip to the Grand Tetons. My girlfriend sent me a picture of a tent with a large glass of wine in front of it. I think I saw the wine and not so much the tent. We got to Jackson, Wyoming, which is absolutely beautiful and we did all sorts of rustic, cowboy things: rodeos and shooting ranges and then for three days we got on horses. No internet. No phone. Rode continuously, up the Grand Tetons on slippery rocky paths, and slept out in 45 degree weather in a very, very basic tent. Again with no devices. Unbelievably beautiful skies. Unbelievable nature. Unbelievable scenery and landscapes. Just amazing … So that was a challenge. Going up three days on a horse! (laughs)

How do you start your day? What do you do in the mornings before you come to work? 

I walk downstairs and get Oscar Ice Cream, my 5-year-old poodle, and then we take a very long walk and I listen to news podcasts. So I'm getting ready for my intellectual day and I'm taking care of my little guy at home. We and our grandson decided he should have a dog, but the dog was going to live with us. So, Oscar showed at the end of February 2020. And he did get us through the pandemic. Our grandson wanted to name him Ice Cream, and we thought we'd give him a more formal first name. So he's Oscar Ice Cream.

So, fast forward to this new position. You signed on board in January. Why the New York Stem Cell Foundation? What attracted you to the job?

It combined two really very important passions for me. One is thinking about where we're going in the future. And that really was what 22 years at Hunter was about. I was known for repeating Hunter’s motto, “Mihi Cura Futuri – The care of the future is mine.” The future now has possibilities for health and better living conditions that we've never had. The science is so extreme at this point that we are looking towards curing diseases that we did not think possible 10 years ago. 

So that combination of having an impact and making the world a better place to live in, in a different way, was so exciting to me. Although I have never been someone who does science myself, I always had a very strong connection to the Hunter scientists. Hunter is, interestingly, a school of the life sciences at CUNY. But because we were a women's college, people like to think about some of the other colleges as the science heavies. And one of the dialogues I really changed was promoting what Hunter did in the life sciences. 

The final thing is that this is an amazing institution. We can talk a little about how it was founded and where it came from, but when I was talking to all the scientists and folks here, who kept this place in such strong standing, it was time for 2.0. We are at a strategic point. We have ideas about our next chapter. We have an expansion that we have to do, and we really do have to think about the strategic vision for the future. That's something I love to do. I love to help people think about, “Where do you want to be?” and then equally important, “How are we going to get there?”

You significantly expanded philanthropic support for Hunter. Are you expecting to do the same for the New York Stem Cell Foundation? 

That's a very interesting question. We were founded because George W. Bush’s administration said we're not going to fund research with embryonic stem cells, because of the politics of using embryos. So our founder, a visionary woman named Susan L. Solomon, and her colleagues, really moms who had kids with type 1 diabetes, it was known to them and at the time that stem cells could be a way to hopefully find a cure, and to stop this type of research was really unacceptable to them. So they started raising money to support research and started to think that we should start doing our own. 

The next thing that occurred was that Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese stem cell researcher and a Nobel Prize laureate, found a way to create stem cells from skin and blood. So now this whole dynamic became about really needing to support this research. We, as an organization, started to say, let's expand how we do our science. We built this facility with state of the art laboratories, and we asked ourselves, what if we could get robots to do the job? We could automate the creation of stem cells. Robots can work 24/7. They never get a headache, they don't do something different than they did the first time. And you have this very large sample of stem cells getting produced by automation and quicker. 

In New York City, we can collect really diverse samples of blood and skin that can turn into stem cells. Now we have this platform where you can have a large scale and large scope of stem cells to do experiments and see how cells operate. You can also test drugs on the cells to see which drugs work. This is extraordinary. I call it miracle biology in my mind. You take your skin cell or a sample of blood, and we can turn it into a brain cell, a liver cell, a pancreatic cell. 

Most of this, to go back to your question, was supported by philanthropy. My mission is to expand the philanthropic base for this research. The 2.0 is, “How can we, as a more mature organization, now start to commercialize our product?” We're patenting things and putting them into the marketplace. The profit goes back into the lab, into the nonprofit. So one of our goals in five to 10 years is to be the model venture philanthropy in this country. We want to get this right. We want to be able to commercialize our science, to put the profits back into more scientific discovery. We need to expand our reach. We want more people to know what we do. We want to have more funding from philanthropy. I love the fundraising part, and I love telling people why this matters.