Research Education and Training News
Dr. Leah Cook started at Moffitt in January 2012 as a postdoctoral trainee in Dr. Conor Lynch's lab. During her time at Moffitt, Leah was heavily involved in the Postdoctoral Association. She had a hand in the creation of some of the career development sessions and helped to establish the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. She also worked with the Department of Government Relations where she met with state representatives and politicians to boost their support for biomedical research funding. Because of her work with the Postdoc Association and Government Relations, she was able to show a good amount of service on her CV which was helpful in landing her faculty position.
Currently, Leah is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center where she is investigating the contribution of neutrophils to prostate cancer growth in bone. Some notable findings were recently published (Costanza et al. Neutrophils are Mediators of Metastatic Prostate Cancer Progression in Bone, Cancer Immunology Immunotherapy Feb. 2020) where Leah and her teammates found that neutrophils in bone elicit a cytotoxic immune response that comes dampened and eliminated as tumor cells progress in bone.
Leah noted that her mentor, Dr. Lynch, gave her the flexibility to pursue her own research and was instrumental in helping with her grant writing - which she mentions not many postdocs get the opportunity to write. By the time she applied for her current position, she had already submitted two grant applications for her own research and was able to turn that into her projected plan for her lab at the University of Nebraska.
When asked what she enjoys about her current position at the University of Nebraska and what challenges her the most, Leah said she truly enjoys getting to direct her own research and mentor scientists, "it’s fun to see people that work for me get excited about the science and come up with their own ideas; that’s a really inspiring part of the job to witness." The most challenging part of her position was transitioning from only having a handful of things to manage as a postdoc, to being the main person that everyone depends on to fix stuff as a PI. "Decisions about purchasing a reagent, hiring people and trying to figure out who’s the best fit for the lab, or if equipment breaks down how and when to get it fixed, whose experiments are affected by it. It’s a lot to manage and it can be stressful."
Lastly, we asked Leah if she had any words of advice for the trainees here at Moffitt. She said, "I would tell all the trainees to not get discouraged. In science we don’t really celebrate each other – the culture is very harsh, nothing is good enough, do more, find more, etc. Being on this side, I see that there’s always your own very special niche or mindset that you bring to the table and we don’t talk about that enough. If you have an idea for your own research, don’t get discouraged just go for it, keep at it because even the senior leaders deal with some of the same stresses. Also, for the ones who don’t think they want to do academics that’s okay because there’s a whole plethora of other science related jobs if you don’t want to leave science. Be encouraged about science, stay in there, we need people who are willing to put in the work and get themselves heard on the science side of research, whether it be science advocacy, science policy or even in industry."
Daniele Gilkes, PhD, joined the Moffitt team in 2003, pursuing her Doctor of Philosophy in the Cancer Biology PhD Program. Dr. Gilkes was awarded the USF Presidential Fellowship, the most prestigious fellowship offered by the University of South Florida. Dr. Gilkes trained with Dr. Jiandong Chen focusing her research on tumor suppressor proteins and produced seven scientific publications.
In 2009, she began a postdoctoral position at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate Gregg Semenza, MD, PhD, and was co-mentored by the Vice Provost of Research, Denis Wirtz. Her research focus moved from the tumor suppressor, p53, to the oncogenes, HIF1 and HIF2 and the study of oxygen regulation in the tumor microenvironment.
In 2015, she accepted a position at Johns Hopkins University as an Assistant Professor of Oncology with a co-appointment in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering department. Her work has been funded both by government sources and foundation support and was recently published in Nature Communications as senior author entitled, "Fate-mapping Post-Hypoxic Tumor Cells Reveals a ROS-resistant Phenotype That Promotes Metastasis." She is also the founding scientific director for the Women’s Malignancy Advocacy program for Johns Hopkins.
Dr. Gilkes also wanted to add a thank you to Dr. Ken Wright for all of his support and willingness to take on a student who did not have a strong biology background. "The Cancer Biology PhD Program was really the first of its kind and has been emulated by many," Dr. Gilkes wrote, "A big thank you to Dr. Jiandong Chen for his thoughtful and unwavering scientific guidance and personal support. He gave me so many opportunities to learn. I hope I will be as great of mentor as they have been to me."
Cancer Biology PhD student Jeremy McGuire successfully defended his dissertation entitled "Mechanistic and Translational Studies on Skeletal Malignancies" on Friday, June 12. He will work as a postdoc at Moffitt Cancer Center in Dr. Conor Lynch's laboratory. Congratulations, Dr. McGuire!
In the month of March, three PhD students successfully presented their dissertation defenses.
Congratulations go out to Wendy Kandell, Fan He, and Afua (Chu Chu) Akuffo for excellently defending their dissertations during such stressful times.
The Office of Graduate Affairs within the Research Education and Training Office (RET) was able to facilitate the completion of these defenses virtually amid the growing COVID-19 crisis.
Wendy was scheduled to present before the work from home order was issued, but her Defense Committee Chair was unable to attend in person. As a result, the RET team coordinated a Zoom video call-in option for him.
Fan and Afua were both scheduled to present their dissertations after the work from home order was issued, but with a little extra effort from everyone involved, both were able to present remotely via Zoom.
Congratulations to Cancer Biology PhD student MacLean Hall, from the Pilon-Thomas Lab, who has been awarded an F31 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). MacLean will receive $35,000 each year through 2022 for his project titled "The importance of CD4+ tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL) in adoptive cell transfer."
According to the National Cancer Institute, "The NCI Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA for Individual Predoctoral Fellows (F31) Award supports promising doctoral candidates who will perform dissertation research and training for a PhD degree in a scientific health-related field relevant to the mission of the NCI during the tenure of the award."
The Research Education and Training office hosted an ugly sweater-themed holiday party for research scientists, postdocs and graduate students on Dec. 20. The gingerbread house contest was a big hit. Another popular activity was the card decorating station where everyone got to express their imagination and artistry.
The RET office spread some holiday cheer on Dec. 23 by distributing these cards to our patients.
Aya Elmarsafawi won USF's 3 Minute Thesis Competition (3MT).
The 3MT is a competition that challenges research higher degree students to explain their thesis or dissertation to a "non-specialist audience" using non-technical language within three minutes.
Aya's thesis is studying enhancing formation of memory T cells to enhance the durability of cancer immunotherapies by manipulating metabolic pathways within the T cells, specifically via targeting metabolites known as polyamines. She will go on to compete in the National Competition in Birmingham, Alabama in March.
Learn more about the 2020 CSGS 3 Minute Thesis Competition.
Brent Kuenzi, a 2018 graduate of the Cancer Biology PhD Program, was selected for the Outstanding Thesis and Dissertation Award at USF on Nov. 19.
The award is given to three to four exceptional students per year. Brent dissertation under the mentorship of Dr. Uwe Rix was entitled "Off-target Based Drug Repurposing Using System Pharmacology." Brent published 14 research articles from his graduate work including first author publications in Nature Chemical Biology and Science Reports. Brent received the highly competitive NCI F99/K00 grant that supported completion of his graduate work and continues to support him as a post-doctoral fellow. He is currently training at the University of California San Diego.
Every year the Cancer Biology PhD Program hosts a picnic for the students and their mentors to socialize and to discuss program updates. This year, plenty of games, food, and adorable puppies generated much enthusiasm at the Graduate Student and Mentor Fall Picnic held on Nov. 1 at USF Riverfront Park.
Chris Letson and Alycia Gardner, former president and vice-president of the Cancer Biology Student Organization (CBSO), were recognized for serving two consecutive years as leaders in CBSO and received gifts for their dedicated service.
New Co-Presidents, Wendy Kandell and Bina Desai, were welcomed by the group and spoke about how they are looking forward to leading the students for the next year.
The Research Education and Training office carved out some fun at our pumpkin carving contest on Oct. 30.
Graduate students, postdocs, and research scientists were invited to participate in the contest, competing for a chance to be one of the top three teams taking home a prize. Teams were given an hour to clean, trace and carve their pumpkins.
Pumpkins were displayed on Halloween in the SRB lobby.