Clinical Perspectives

Researcher Spotlight: Shelley Tworoger, PhD & Population Science

May 31, 2017

Researcher-Spotlight--Shelley-Tworoger.jpg Population science research at Moffitt Cancer Center involves studying large data sets, survey-based research and also lab work to assess a cancer’s potential to occur, grow and spread

Meet Dr. Tworoger  

Shelley Tworoger, PhD
Shelley Tworoger, PhD

Shelley Tworoger, PhD is Moffitt Cancer Center's Associate Center Director of Population Science. Dr. Tworoger's research focuses on enhancing ovarian cancer prevention and improving understanding of breast and ovarian carcinogenesis through collaborations with biostatisticians, pathologists and oncologists.

Prior to joining the Moffitt team, Dr. Tworoger was Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Faculty Director of the Brigham and Women's Hospital/Harvard Cohorts Biorepository. She also served as Associate Director of the Harvard Nurses' Health Study, one of the largest investigations into the risk factors for major chronic diseases in women. Since 2009, Dr. Tworoger has co-chaired the steering committee of the Ovarian Cancer Cohort Consortium (OC3), an international, NCI-sponsored research effort.

Can you tell us a little about what interested you in joining Moffitt Cancer Center? 

There are so many factors that went into deciding to come to Moffitt. First and foremost though is the amazing sense of mission at Moffitt - every single person that I have interacted with is on "the same page" that caring for patients and preventing cancer is a top priority. This passion is infectious. Also, the collaborative and integrated nature of research is particularly unique and infuses every aspect of the work here from clinicians to basic researchers to population scientists. This interdisciplinary approach is exhibited at all levels, from the senior leadership to post-doctoral fellows and fits with my research interests.

Tell us a little bit about your research.

The goal of my research is to improve prevention and better identify women at high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. My integrative approach uses epidemiologic studies - leveraging questionnaires, medical records, biomarkers, and tumor tissue - in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team of researchers, including biostatisticians, pathologists, basic scientists, psychologists and oncologists. I am the PI of an international, NCI-sponsored research effort, the Ovarian Cancer Cohort Consortium (OC3), that pools data from 27 prospective cohort studies from around the world to study ovarian cancer risk and survival. My research spans a wide variety of exposures, including psychosocial stress, metabolomics, and inflammation/immunity, among others. I am excited to expand my research leveraging the unique resources at the Moffitt.

Why did you choose science, specifically cancer research, as a career?

In high school, I was lucky enough to participate in a program where I conducted research during my senior year. Through that experience, I developed a true passion for conducting research - I loved how the answer to each question led to another question to explore. In college, I tried different types of research (from modeling interactions of water molecules to evaluating the biochemistry of extra-cellular matrices); however, when I learned about epidemiology from a friend's father, I knew that was my calling because I could apply my love of statistics to directly impact public health. The death of a close family friend from cancer drew me to work at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center during my training. Cancer is a very complex disease, yet there is so much potential to reduce cancer burden through improved prevention recommendations, which has been the major focus of my research. More recently, I started to conduct research oriented on improving quality of life and outcomes for patients.

Where do you see Population Science heading over the next 10 years?

We know quite a bit about the role of lifestyle factors in cancer development and survival, and while there is still much to learn about the mechanisms of these associations, I see three key directions for the future of population science. First, we need to think outside the box about other factors that may influence cancer, including extending the methods developed for genetics research to examine the downstream consequences of genetic variations on proteins and metabolites. This will necessitate working closely with our basic science colleagues to look at the same questions from multiple angles - in human populations and animal models. Second, most population research has characterized cancers based on their site of origin, rather than on their molecular features; we need to better leverage tumor characteristics in population-based studies. Third, while new discoveries are being made about how to prevent cancer and improve survival, it can often take decades for this information to be incorporated into practice. A nascent science on how to disseminate relevant research information and implement programs to impact public health is emerging and I feel this area is critically important to making our research relevant.