Curious Molecular Oncologist Studies Aging Process

By Amanda Sangster - March 19, 2021

Ana P. Gomes, PhD, joined Moffitt Cancer Center in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic as an assistant member in the Department of Molecular Oncology and successfully started her lab while under lockdown. Her laboratory investigates how the aging process shapes the tumorigenic process. She wants to invite young students to her lab so she can foster the same spark in them that she felt as a curious child drawn to science. She’s happiest at Christmastime and looks forward to a post-pandemic world so she can resume traveling.

Did you always know you would go into research?

Since I was a child, I’ve always been a curious person. I became interested in just looking around in nature and seeing the diversity of organisms. I wondered things like why we are different from fish. And that led me to study biology in college. From there, I started understanding physiology and the complexity of the human body. One thing led to another and I started my PhD in aging.

Describe your research interests and how this work ultimately might benefit cancer patients.

I’ll never forget a college professor that said, “Cancer is the price of getting old.” Unlike pretty much any other disease, aging occurs in every cell of our body. It’s rather complex and we still don’t understand how or why it happens. I really enjoy that line of thought and research. I started thinking more about how aging relates to certain diseases. I started studying how aging of the body of the host affects how cancer progresses and how older patients respond to cancer treatments. We all know in the scientific community that aging causes cancer but what we always attributed it to was the fact that as time passes, you get more mutations, and as you get more mutations, you get cancer. But many of the changes that occur with aging naturally are things that we know from years of research that also affect cancer and make cancers progress.

portrait of blockquote author

"If we fail, we fail. But if we succeed, we’ll probably change the paradigm. That idea brought me here today."

- Dr. Ana Gomes

What is the best career advice you received?

Research is a very interesting career because, as rewarding as it is, it’s quite difficult. We fail 99% of the time to get that one thing that works. I worked with a researcher that was very positive and creative. Throughout my bad moments in grad school, he always told me, “Don’t be afraid and aim for the sky because that’s how we get there.” If we don’t aim for that, we’ll never get there. That gave me a sense of freedom and confidence to just try new things. If we fail, we fail. But if we succeed, we’ll probably change the paradigm. That idea brought me here today. The idea that I can use my brain to change people’s lives really kept me going. I try to tell my mentees that we’ll be wrong 99% of the time. But if we don’t have the freedom to think beyond what’s known, we’re never going to find anything that makes a difference.

What does community mean to you?

I think community is being a part of something that is bigger than yourself. This idea that together we can make a difference. Even in science, it’s very rare that you will have the best ideas in the world. A lot of time you don’t even see it until you’re talking to someone else. That happens to me all the time. I’m in my office stuck, but then I talk to someone and it suddenly clicks. This idea of being a part of something bigger, a community — whether it’s through mentoring or affecting patient lives — I think it’s very important in one’s life.

Do you feel a sense of inclusion at Moffitt?

Especially as a woman, you can see that there’s a push to highlight women in research. For example, when I decided to join Moffitt, one thing that drew me to my department was that my department chair is a woman. There aren’t many of us that have been chairs. Throughout my career, I’ve always worked with male principal investigators and male chairs. I really enjoy that I can see a woman in that position and take that as an example. There are a lot of challenges that come from simply being a woman. It’s a completely different world biologically. It’s nice to be able to talk to someone that understands the challenges and can guide you through them. I’ve never experienced that before.

What else still needs to be done to promote equality in research?

Especially in terms of diversity, I think we tend to put Band-Aids on problems so that it looks good. But that doesn’t quite solve an issue. When you look around the world, there’s really a great need to fix these types of problems at the source. I think a part of solving the problem comes from getting disadvantaged kids into places like this. If you can take high school students and bring them in for a summer and get them to experience what we do, you can get them excited. That kind of excitement when you’re that young — that will never leave you. It makes you work hard. It’s life changing. Otherwise, you are never going to see the possibilities. I hope I can contribute to that moving forward in my own lab.

What smalls acts can a faculty member like yourself do everyday to promote workplace equity?

You can treat everybody with the same respect. No matter where they come from, their religion, skin color, if they’re a student, a post-doc or fellow faculty, everybody should be treated with the same respect. We should give everyone the same opportunities. Just starting with that, we will go a long way. It’s funny because those are such simple things.

Do you feel it is beneficial for women in research and medicine to have male allies?

I think as a scientist and a faculty member, you need to have as many allies as possible. It doesn’t quite matter whether they’re female or male. What matters is having someone in your corner.

What do you do like to do to unwind and recharge?

I love reading biographies. I’ll always learn something from someone else’s mistakes. You gain so much knowledge about the world and how things move. I also really love to travel. I want to see new things, eat new food and see the world. This pandemic is killing me. I canceled plans to go to Canada, Dominican Republic and Hawaii. Recently, I went to St. Augustine and loved it. It reminded me of the cultural part of Europe. I also visited Tarpon Springs and that was very cool. It resets me to see new things.

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