Research Education and Training News

Members of the Cancer Biology PhD program at the picnic

October 2022

RET hosted our Annual Cancer Biology Student Picnic on Oct. 14 at the USF Riverfront Park. It was really nice to get back together in person after so many virtual events over the last couple of years. Students, staff and faculty enjoyed the food and outdoor games. The annual Outstanding Research Accomplishment Award recipient was announced, and we showed our appreciation to the outgoing Cancer Biology Student Organization (CBSO) Co-Presidents (J. Mandula & Julia Billington) – while welcoming the new CBSO Officers.

Picnic award winner2022 Outstanding Research Award Recipient: 

  • J. Mandula

New CBSO Officers:

  • President: Rebecca Bekker
  • Vice President: Gosia Weh
  • Webmaster: Alicia Bjornberg
  • First-Year Liaison: Darwin Chang

A great time was had by all!

September 2022

Moffitt postdocs meeting a therapy dog

September 19-23 was National Postdoc Appreciation Week and the theme was "Finding Your Balance." We celebrated at Moffitt with events every day to let our postdocs know how important they are and how grateful we are for their hard work as researchers.

Monday the RET office kicked things off with a mindfulness and meditation workshop. Sharen Lock, Yoga Therapist and Patient Wellness Coordinator, led us through a relaxing practice of mindful stretching and meditation that can be done daily to improve mental, emotional and physical wellness.

Tuesday, Moffitt therapy dog Jolie visited with postdocs as they enjoyed cupcakes and a thank you gift from the OPA. Wednesday, Kaley Ransbottom, Artist in Residence, encouraged postdocs to embrace their creativity to create Beads of Hope and practice a mindful drawing technique called Zentangle. On Thursday, Dr. Dennis Adeegbe delivered a presentation about how to thrive as a postdoc, and engaged in deep discussion with postdocs over pizza and lemonade. On Friday, Leanna Smithberger, PhD, led postdocs through the process of developing a professional brand.

The OPA and RET team wishes to thank the presenters at our workshops – Sharen Lock, Jolie & her human, Kaley Ransbottom and Dr. Dennis Adeegbe, thank you for sharing your time and talents with our postdoc community.

Most importantly, thank you, postdocs, for choosing Moffitt for this important step in your career!

Members of RET at the Florida AquariumPostdoctoral fellows and PhD students gathered at the Florida Aquarium for the annual Junior Scientist Retreat on Sept. 9. The event began with a humorous keynote address from Adam Ruben, PhD, about the many career paths open to scientists beyond the academic faculty track.

Following a successful networking lunch with a rousing round of "human bingo," (congratulations to our bingo winners, Cherell Cottrell-Daniels and Niveditha Nerlakanti!) plenary speaker Sam Falsetti, PhD, shared his experience transitioning into the industry and offered insight for early career scientists looking to make a similar transition.

In the afternoon, attendees had the option to attend discussion panels centered around careers in academia, start-ups, the pharmaceutical industry, and liaison/consulting roles. At each of these sessions, postdocs and graduate students posed thoughtful and forward-thinking questions for discussion and panelists drew upon their diverse backgrounds to illustrate just how varied professional paths can be.

After such an engaging day of discussions, attendees got to relax as they explored the aquarium before enjoying a delicious dinner reception. All in all, it was an inspiring day, and it was great to have so many Moffitt alums return to share their experiences and insight. Thank you to the MPDA and CBSO JSR planning committee, and especially JSR chair Tabitha Boeringer for your hard work planning such a great event!

Smitha PillaiHelp us congratulate research scientist, Dr. Smitha Pillai, for being awarded the Elsa U. Pardee Foundation grant!

Dr. Pillai was awarded the Elsa U. Pardee Foundation grant for her project titled "Targeting OGR1 mediated lipid phenotype in metastatic breast cancer." Lipogenic phenotype is a necessary and targetable adaptation for the survival of breast cancer cells in acidic tumor niches. Acid sensing by the G protein-coupled receptor, OGR1 and the resulting downstream signaling were required for this phenotype. The proposed studies will define the role of OGR1 in the invasion and metastasis of breast cancer cells and test the anti-tumor properties of OGR1 inhibition in preclinical models.

RET chair speaking with studentsThe Research and Education Training Office hosted undergraduate students from the USF Judy Genshaft Honors College on Sept. 9. After a presentation about the training opportunities available at Moffitt to contribute to the prevention and cure of cancer, several Moffitt faculty members showcased their impactful scientific cancer research projects to the students. The panel of experts represented an array of basic, population, quantitative and translational research. A heartfelt thank you to all the presenters; Dr. Yoga Balagurunathan, Dr. David Basanta Gutierrez, Dr. Conor Lynch, Dr. Shari Pilon-Thomas, and Dr. Vani Simmons. We happily hosted 87 guests from the college.

August 2022

Chang JiangHelp us congratulate Dr. Chang Jiang, a postdoc and instructor from the DeNicola Lab, for being awarded a K99 grant!

Dr. Jiang was awarded this grant for her project titled "Targeting antioxidant vulnerabilities in KEAP1/NRF2 mutant NSCLC." KEAP1/NRF2 pathway are commonly mutated in NSCLC, but targeted therapies for patients with these mutations are lacking. A novel antioxidant vulnerabilities has been identified by Dr. Jiang for NSCLC cells harboring KEAP1 and NRF2 mutations. The proposed studies will define the mechanisms of these vulnerabilities and how these vulnerabilities can be exploited in order to develop potent therapeutic strategies for patients with KEAP1/NRF2 mutations.

Saheed OseniPlease help us congratulate Dr. Saheed Oseni, a postdoc fellow from the Adeegbe Lab, for being awarded not one, but two awards!

Dr. Oseni was awarded the AACR Scholar-In-Training Award and the GMaP Region 2 Trainee/Early Stage Investigator Travel Award to attend the 15th AACR Conference on The Science of Cancer Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic Minorities and the Medically Underserved. 

Jessica Rivera RiveraPlease help us congratulate Dr. Jessica Rivera Rivera, from the Vadaparampil Lab, on being selected as one of the recipients of the 2022 SBM Bridging the Gap Research Award!

The Bridging the Gap Research Award will be given to one postdoctoral student member on an annual basis. Special consideration will be given to applicants whose research will investigate key social problems including, but not limited to, climate change, health inequities, COVID-19, and the spread of misinformation.

Eleonora PelleThe North American Neuroendocrine Tumor Society (NANETS) congratulates Eleonora Pelle, MD, Post-Doctoral Researcher under the mentorship of Dr. Jonathan Strosberg, as the 2022 recipient of NANETS’ Basic/Translational Science Investigator Award (BTSI).

Dr. Pelle was awarded this scholarship for her proposal: Development of a Novel Anti-SSTR Bispecific T-cell Engager (BiTE)-like Molecule for the Treatment of Neuroendocrine Tumors (NETs).

Members of RET at Welcome Back Week eventOn Aug. 17, the Research Education and Training team took part in Hillsborough Community College’s Welcome Back Week. Representatives from Moffitt visited the Dale Mabry Campus to distribute information in regard to the opportunities available at the cancer center and to encourage them on their path to higher education.

Special thanks to Karla Valderrama and Sierra Byrd from Talent Acquisition for assisting in this event. We look forward to continuing our undergraduate recruitment efforts at other Tampa Bay institutions!

April 2022

Cancer Biology PhD Program students at AACREvery year, the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting brings scientists from around the world together to highlight the latest discoveries across the spectrum of cancer research. These advances span population science and cancer prevention, basic science and cancer biology, translational science and clinical trials, and survivorship and advocacy. The work being done to foster cancer research, treatment and prevention takes center stage.

After going virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s largest meeting dedicated to cancer research convened in New Orleans while also offering a virtual platform April 8-13. Thousands of presentations, educational sessions and workshops were highlighted.

Moffitt marketing items on table at AACRMoffitt Cancer Center had more than 60 presentations during this year’s annual meeting. The studies covered a variety of science including adaptive therapy improving treatment for prostate cancer, outcomes for younger colorectal cancer patients, radiomics to help guide ovarian cancer treatment decisions, ways to better meet the needs of LGBT patients, and more.

Moffitt had great representation from our trainee population and we are proud of all our AACR attendees!

February 2022

BinaBina Desai, a PhD candidate in the lab of Dr. Andriy Marusyk, received an AACR Scholar-in-Training Award to present her research at the AACR Special Conference on Evolutionary Dynamics in Carcinogenesis and Response to Therapy.

The conference will be held March 14-17 in Tampa at the Hilton Downtown. Moffitt's Drs. Robert Gillies and Andriy Marusyk are co-chairs for the conference.

Advanced registration for the conference ends Friday, Feb. 11. Click this link for more information and to register.

Congratulations, Bina!

October 2021

The Office of Community Outreach, Engagement and Equity is participating in the Florida Community-Engaged Research Alliance Against COVID-19 in Disproportionately Affected Communities (FL-CEAL) project, a statewide initiative aimed at advancing evidence-based COVID health promotion practices.

A key age group with low rates of vaccination in Florida is 20-29 year-olds. In response, Moffitt’s Office of COEE is partnering locally with Concorde Career Institute (Concorde) and Hillsborough Community College (HCC) to address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among the young adult population using a novel peer education program led by students in Moffitt’s Cancer Biology graduate program.

With support from Dr. Dorina Avram, vice-chair of the Department of Immunology, the goal of these informative discussions is to dispel myths surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine and promote its uptake by helping students to make informed decisions with accurate scientific information and the latest research.

To date, the "Ask the Expert" panels featured Cancer Biology graduate program students: Elliot Medina, Amanda Meshey, and Jessica Mandula. The first session at Concorde reached 100 participants, and two additional programs have been scheduled HCC in October and November. 

COVID webinar

Mehdi DamaghiDrs. Mehdi Damaghi, pictured at top, and Ariosto Silva (MPI) were awarded an NCI U01 of $3,417,517 over five years for their research project titled "Ecology and Evolution of Breast Carcinogenesis." Drs. Marilyn Bui, Brian Czerniecki, Robert Gatenby and Robert Gillies will serve as Co-Investigators on the project.

Ariosto Silva

Congratulations, Drs. Damaghi and Silva!



August 2021

Ventilator winning team membersLast year, Moffitt entered a new agreement with the USF Medical Engineering capstone program. Dr. Aaron Muncy, Dr. Stefano Pasetto and Dr. Heiko Enderling sponsored and mentored a research project on a novel solution for safe multi-patient co-ventilation during surge periods of ventilator shortage (such as COVID-19).

Students Abby Blocker, Carolyna Yamamoto Alves Pinto, and Jacob Yarinsky developed "The Eucovent" - a medical device that allows for multiple patients to be treated with a single ventilator. The team developed a device that delivers different pressures and volumes to each patient from the same ventilator. The Eucovent addresses some of the safety concerns traditionally associated with co-ventilation and the device can be used in low resource scenarios such as rural areas, military settings, and natural disaster scenarios or pandemics.

The Moffitt team won first place at USF Medical Engineering and took first place in the Jabil Innovation Technology Challenge that came with a $10,000 award. Most recently, the team has just been announced as the first-place winner of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) Challenge with a $20,000 award. Projects came from 47 universities in 26 states, engaging nearly 400 students nationwide. 

Two videos about the device for the design challenges can be found here:
Eucovent - DEBUT Competition
Demo Video

Moffitt has filed a provisional patent application "Time or Tidal Volume Splitting Ventilator and Methods of Use" for the device and design earlier this year.

Please join us in congratulating the students on this innovative project!

May 2021

WaelThis year was a great success for the Annual Moffitt Scientific Symposium which saw 387 people in attendance for the virtual event. Fantastic research projects that span all sectors of research at Moffitt were presented and discussed during oral presentations in the morning along with live virtual poster presentations in the afternoon.

After the Symposium, attendees were given the opportunity to vote for the "Best Poster". We are happy to announce the winner of "Best Poster" for 2021 is: Wael Gamal. Wael, from the Dr. Javier Pinilla-Ibarz lab, presented their work "Reprogramming CLL T-cell metabolism to improve adoptive T-cell therapy" in the Translational Science Category. Congratulations, Wael!

April 2021

Janine DeBlasiCongratulations to Cancer Biology graduate student Janine DeBlasi for being selected as one of the 2021 Women in Cancer Research (WICR) Scholar Awardees. As stated by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), "this program provides funds for the participation of early-career, meritorious scientists in the AACR Annual Meeting. Scholars are selected on the basis of their qualifications, references from mentors, and an estimation of the potential professional benefit to the awardees."

Janine's research in Dr. Gina DeNicola's lab aims to understand the role of EAP1 mutation in lung adenocarcinoma, and how this is influenced by the loss of other tumor suppressor genes. Keep up the great work Janine!

March 2021

Chen HaoThe 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.

IlahWe 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!


November 2020

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!

PatrickCongratulations 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. McGuire dissertation over ZoomJune 2020

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!


Wendy Kandell
Wendy Kandell

March 2020

In the month of March, three PhD students successfully presented their dissertation defenses.

Fan He
Fan He

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.

Afua Chu Chu
Afua (Chu Chu) Akuffo

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. 



January 2020

MacLean HallCongratulations 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."

December 2019 RET holiday activity

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.




November 2019

Aya Elmarsafawi won USF's 3 Minute Thesis Competition (3MT). 

Aya Elmarsafawi, USF 3-T Winner

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 KuenziBrent 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.

Cancer Biology PhD Picnic

October 2019

Pumpkin carving contestThe 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.