Research Education and Training News
The Cancer Biology Outstanding Research Award annually recognizes students in the Cancer Biology PhD Program who demonstrate an exceptional level of performance in research as evidenced by mentor evaluations, conference presentations, and publications, etc.
We are delighted to announce that members of the award selection committee have chosen Chen Hao Lo and Ilah Bok as the recipients of this award for 2020. Congratulations!
At the conclusion of his undergraduate sophomore year at the University of South Florida, Dr. Kim Ohaegbulam came upon an advertisement for the Leaders In New Knowledge (LINK) program at Moffitt Cancer Center. It was through this program, Dr. Ohaegbulam had the opportunity to network, attend conferences (such as the annual Cancer Prevention and Control Conference), join career development workshops, and perfect his 2-minute elevator pitch. Today, Dr. Ohaegbulam has an MD, PhD and is currently in his residency in the Department of Radiation Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU).
He attributes a great deal of his professional success to LINK program mentors Dr. Cathy Meade, Dr. Scott Antonia, and Dr. Teresita Munoz-Antonia. "Those three individuals really wanted to ensure that whatever I wanted to do, they tried to find a way of making it possible for me," said Dr. Ohaegbulam. They accomplished this through multiple avenues. Whether it was securing extra funds for his gap year, putting him on additional projects and publications, bringing him to conferences, or introducing him to different spectrums of research, they made sure to afford him with a plethora of opportunities.
With their guidance and support, Dr. Ohaegbulam continued his professional journey and completed his medical degree at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Then, during the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, found himself in his intern year in Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell New York - where the virus was just beginning to hit. During his internship, he experienced what it was like to work on the frontlines of a global health pandemic, not something many interns had experienced. He and another intern, Adam Karp, MD, published an article entitled "Being Here Now" in the journal Chest about their time working in that atmosphere.
After completing his internship, he left New York and began his residency at OHSU. "Whenever you start something new, you’re trying to be as knowledgeable as possible and it’s important to become content with knowing it’s going to take time to grasp the info," said Dr. Ohaegbulam on the topic of his new position at OHSU. He explains that soaking up a lot of information in a considerably short amount of time can prove difficult when so much is being thrown at you, but it helps to have a supportive team like he does. "I enjoy the people I’m with. The chair of Radiation Medicine, Dr. Charles Thomas, is an innovator and an advocator for his residents. Everyone in the program has been great to work with, it’s just a phenomenal place," Dr. Ohaegbulam stated.
Dr. Ohaegbulam is always asking himself, "what else can I learn?" and he encourages current trainees to do the same. "Be curious. Never be content with where you are from an intellectual standpoint. There’s always room to grow so keep doing it," he said. He also advises trainees to be open-minded and remind them that narrow-minded thinking never leads to growth.
On a final note, Dr. Ohaegbulam wanted to thank Drs. Meade, Antonia, and Munoz-Antonia for their mentorship and support. He says, "I can’t repay you enough."
The Cancer Biology Student Organization (CBSO) recently selected their new CBSO officers. Typically the chosen candidates would be announced at the Annual Graduate Student & Mentor Fall Picnic but this year it was turned into a virtual event. Congratulations go out to Bina Desai, CBSO President; Niveditha Nerlakanti and Julia Billington, CBSO Co-Vice Presidents; Jessica Mandula, CBSO Secretary; and Financial Officers Payal Goala and Qianqian Hu. Good luck this year CBSO officers!
"One thing that was apparent from day one at Moffitt was the focus on collaboration and shared resources," said Adam Carie, PhD. Dr. Carie began his research career at Moffitt in 2001 as a research assistant in the drug discovery lab of Dr. Said Sebti. Even as an undergraduate research assistant, Dr. Carie was expected to attend lab group meetings, departmental research presentations, and get to know all of the core facilities capabilities as well as other researchers within Moffitt. “This environment was essential in learning to network and collaborate, and also see the big picture on how drug discovery and development is carried out,” Dr. Carie stated.
In 2003, Dr. Carie joined the Cancer Biology PhD Program here at Moffitt. He continued his work in Dr. Sebti’s lab, took extra classes in entrepreneurship, studied International Council for Harmonization of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH) and U.S Food & Drug Administration (FDA) guidance’s, and learned about Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and Good Laboratory Practice (GLPs). As a graduate student, he knew he wanted to go into an industry position in cancer drug development, so he made it a point to gain as much knowledge as possible in that career direction. During his time in the PhD Program, he also attended major international conferences, as well as smaller more focused conferences, where he was able to network and gain crucial presentation experience.
After graduating with his PhD in 2008, Dr. Carie joined Intezyne Technologies, a Tampa-based BioPharma company focusing on nanoparticle formulations to make safer, and more effective cancer therapeutics. “My time at Moffitt was instrumental in gaining the technical expertise and career development insights for me to choose to go into the BioPharma industry in cancer drug development,” said Dr. Carie. In 2018, he also decided to join Bold Therapeutics, a Vancouver-based BioPharma company focusing on the development of BOLD-100, a novel anticancer drug targeting chemo-resistance.
Dr. Carie is currently the Director of Product Development for Intezyne and the Director of Chemistry, Manufacturing and Control (CMC) and Nonclinical Development for Bold Therapeutics. For each company, he is part of small teams involved in early-stage oncology drug development. The small teams are very collaborative and they allow him the opportunity to work in an array of areas which he especially enjoys. He says he gets to dabble in manufacturing, intellectual property, clinical and preclinical research, and regulatory affairs - just to name a few.
"Ultimately, I wanted my career to focus on an area that can really help people with cancer," Dr. Carie said. His mother passed away from malignant melanoma when he was just 8 years old and ever since he knew he wanted to do something to help. "The opportunity to help advance a new drug along the development path is fulfilling and exciting."
In Dr. Carie’s opinion, the biggest accomplishments in his professional career are the roles he’s had in taking new drugs from concept to clinic at both Intezyne Technologies and Bold Therapeutics. “I think it is rare to be intimately involved in every step of the process of translating research from bench top to bed side, and I’ve definitely learned a lot over the last 12 years,” he said.
Lastly, he gave some words of advice for current trainees. “It’s very easy to get so focused on the day-to-day that the big picture gets lost in the weeds. If you’re not doing so already, take some time to examine where you are in the big picture of where you eventually want to be. No matter what, if you have a specific technical interest or want to get a tenured professorship, there are always ways to prepare yourself for that next career move. The only way to do that is to have a clear picture of what you want, and what it takes to get there.”
"Thinking is my profession," says Dr. Glenn Simmons, Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Dr. Simmons began his scientific career here at Moffitt Cancer Center back in May of 2003 when he joined the LINK program. The Leaders In New Knowledge (LINK) program was created to increase and retain minorities in science and create links between established scientists and aspiring scientists. With over 50 LINK participants, the program made a lasting impact which is evident in researchers like Dr. Simmons. "Being involved in the research enterprise at such an early stage gave me an idea of what research really takes," said Dr. Simmons.
Dr. Simmons’ lab at UM focuses on cancer biology, investigating the role lipids play in the tumor microenvironment. Their long-term goal is that their research will lead to new clinical trials that look at ways of modulating the immune response so that they can improve the standard of care for various types of cancers. Since late April however, his lab has been delving into COVID-19.
"My lab also has a health disparities focus so I was concerned very early on about what would happen if the testing for COVID was being implemented in a way that was going to inherently have some bias," said Dr. Simmons.
His lab developed a model that can determine the approximate number of people in the community that are infected with COVID who are not being accounted for by the clinics. This could lead to unknowing spread of the disease.
According to Dr. Simmons, there are multiple reasons these people may be missed. "You have to pay for the test, you have to get to a certain place to have the test done, and the people who are administering the test have to agree that you need to be tested based on whatever protocol that they’re following or whatever inherent biases they may have." Dr. Simmons’ model is now being employed across 44 different cities in Minnesota.
Dr. Simmons recently received his first mentorship award, nominated by one of his student trainees for mentor of the year. Winning the award was important to him as he states, "I feel like the reason I made it to where I am is because I had a research mentor like Dr. Scott Antonia and a postdoc that was directly supervising my work, Dr. Terry Hunter. Dr. Hunter was super nurturing of the fact that I had no idea what I was doing, and she helped me understand that with a little more focus everything else will make sense."
When asked what skills he developed during his time at Moffitt that are now important for him as a faculty member, Dr. Simmons said two skills in particular aided him. Getting comfortable with failure and having multiple opportunities to discuss his research with junior and senior faculty. Being able to present his research confidently was a major benefit and Moffitt was a big part of helping to shape that aspect of his development as a scientist.
Lastly, Dr. Simmons had some words of advice for trainees, "Sometimes we get into an echo chamber - we want things to reaffirm what we already think. Sometimes that’s good and a lot of times it’s really bad. Accept that all realities are true at the same time and therefore find both sides of an argument. Listen to both pros and cons and then ask yourself, how do you want to live your life? Spend enough time with yourself to find out who you really are and who you want to be."
In June of 2015, Dr. Jessica Reusch began her postdoctoral fellowship at Moffitt Cancer Center working in Dr. Ken Wright’s lab. During her time as a Moffitt postdoc, she was heavily involved in extracurriculars. Dr. Reusch actively participated in the Moffitt Postdoctoral Association, volunteered with Moffitt’s Government Affairs office to speak with state and national lawmakers about the biomedical research going on at Moffitt, mentored an undergraduate student in Dr. Wright’s lab to gain teaching and leadership skills, and attended the many career development seminars and workshops held by the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. "My time as a postdoc at Moffitt was very instrumental in preparing me to obtain and succeed in an AAAS Science & Technology Fellowship position," states Dr. Reusch.
During the yearlong assignment in Washington, DC, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows are taught about policymaking in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government. For Dr. Reusch, it was life changing. She states, "It provided me a clear pathway to transition careers from bench science to science policy. AAAS Fellows are highly regarded in government, so that allowed me to immediately be taken seriously and thrown into exciting and intense work. By the time I began job hunting in the second year of my fellowship, I found I was being sought out by hiring offices just as much as I was seeking them, which really speaks to how well the fellowship prepared me for gaining my next position."
Currently, Dr. Reusch is working as the Genomics Lead in the Policy Office at the All of Us Research Project at NIH. Her main areas of focus are policy needs and issues around genomics research, return of genomics research results to participants, and informed consent. This past spring, the program launched a consent process for participants to choose whether they would like their genomic research results back or not. This fall, Dr. Reusch and her team will begin the process of returning research results to participants who want them. "I have been part of a fantastic team of people from all different disciplines who have worked together to make this happen," said Dr. Reusch.
Dr. Reusch handles a high volume of fast turn-around projects that are different every day and every week and she is constantly learning something new and being pushed to expand and improve her skills. She said that learning how to multitask during her postdoc at Moffitt was helpful for her current position, "My postdoc expanded the types of tasks I was doing beyond the bench, e.g., project planning and management, hosting meetings, mentoring, writing, networking, and a lot more email writing, and demanded that I learn to juggle those with my wet lab experiments."
When asked if she had any words of advice for our current trainees, Dr. Reusch said, "Don’t neglect your professional development. There will always be more experiments to run. Make time to learn about new career avenues, talk with new people, and take a class or volunteer to learn something different."
Congratulations to Cancer Biology PhD student Pat Innamarato for successfully defending his dissertation entitled "The Impact of Myeloid-mediated Co-stimulation and Immunosuppression on the Anti-tumor Efficacy of Adoptive T cell Therapy," on August 14. He will be staying at Moffitt Cancer Center working as a postdoc in Dr. Shari Pilon-Thomas’ laboratory. Well done, Dr. Innamarato!
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.