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Research Spotlight: Dr. Cress Offers Insights on Molecular Oncology, SPARK Program

May 25, 2017

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Dr. Doug Cress is an associate member of the Molecular Oncology Department.

Dr. Douglas Cress' research involves providing a better understanding of the E2F pathway to lead to better therapies for lung cancer patients. He is also the director of postdoctoral training and the SPARK summer internship program.

You have been at Moffitt faculty member since its early years, how much has changed over your tenure? What do you look forward to in the coming years?

The biggest change has been growth. I gave my job seminar at Moffitt, in a classroom at the USF Medical School, to about ten people. Now, that many people will come to a candidate’s “chalk talk”. The days when I had dinner with every single recruit in every basic science program are also over. What is most surprising is what has not changed. We still have the same newcomer attitude that was so exciting two decades ago. I am also pleased that our commitment to collaboration remains as strong, or even stronger, than it was in the past.

The thing that I look forward to, daily, is how quickly one can generate and test a biological or clinical hypothesis using structured data sets such as Total Cancer Care and The Cancer Genome Atlas. This approach dramatically increases the speed of research.

On the downside, the amount of paperwork we must do daily is becoming stifling.

Your work focuses on lung cancer. Can you tell us more about your research and what made you interested in that specific type of cancer?

I am a molecular biologist focused on understanding the biology of lung adenocarcinoma. Working in collaboration with oncologists, pathologists, statisticians, informaticists and epidemiologists, I hope to understand the genetic and epigenetic changes that drive this cancer so that we can best treat it and perhaps even cure it. Ironically, I grew up on a farm and tobacco was our primary cash crop. Much of my college savings were generated from long hours in the sun taking care of acres of tobacco. However, my interest in lung cancer was driven by the fact that my old corner office (a perk of being the first investigator in the building) in the MRC was next to Gerold Bepler, the Head Moffitt’s Thoracic Program at the time. Gerold opened my eyes to how a basic scientist could contribute to clinical research through collaboration.

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

I always wanted to be Spock, the science officer on the starship Enterprise. My fate as a cancer researcher was sealed after successfully running my first sequencing gel during a rotation as a first-year graduate student. I was hooked on discovering news genes that no one has seen before.

You oversee Moffitt’s Summer Program for the Advancement of Research Knowledge, also known as SPARK. Tell us more about the program and why it is so important to mentor young science students.

This is a ten-week summer program in which we bring in 15-20 undergraduate students to work with established Moffitt scientists. These are the high achievers among high achievers. These students work on cutting-edge projects and at the end of the summer present their results at “Research Day”.  This program is important because there are many gifted students out there that might not catch the research bug without our help. We need to identify them and get them hooked on discovery. I believe that these students along with others like them will bring an end to cancer as we know it now.

Moffitt recently created an Office of Postdoctoral Affairs.  Can you tell me a bit about that office and your role?

Arguably, the most important work force in cancer research are the postdoctoral fellows. They are the freshly-trained PhDs and MDs that take on the most challenging research problems as the final component of their training. They are ambitious, hard-working and generally able to conduct independent research at the highest level. However, they can also be neglected by their hosting institution since they can be considered temporary employees indentured to complete a project. Many years ago, I was asked to oversee the predecessor of the OPA. The idea of the OPA is to ensure that postdoctoral fellows at Moffitt receive not only access to the cutting-edge technology necessary for their work, but that they also receive career-counseling and guidance - so that - once their technical training was over, they were ready to transition into a rewarding career.

To achieve this goal, I helped to start the Moffitt Postdoctoral Association, which was a group of fellows who recognized the need for additional training and experience. With generous financial support from Moffitt’s leadership, this group organized workshops, retreats and networking venues that promoted career advancement. Although successful, this approach put too much of the burden on the fellows themselves. Recognizing the need for improvement, Moffit leadership recently hired Dr. Tracy Costello as full-time director of postdoctoral training. Tracy came to Moffitt with a wealth of experience with postdoctoral training and with an excellent scientific background making her the perfect fit for the OPA.