"The Perfect Way to Humanize Our Science"
Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Carla Finkielstein (left) recently invited breast cancer survivors including Meg Shrader (right) to speak to students who are researching that disease.
To Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate Kevin Kim, cancer is a scientific puzzle with which to grapple.
But it's also a terrifying disease his father and grandmother are lucky to have survived.
So when Kim spends long hours working with test tubes on cellular research to improve our understanding of breast cancer, he understands the stakes of his job all too well.
"It's really gratifying to know that the work that I'm doing may help ... solve one little piece of the puzzle," he says.
Kim is one of several students working under Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Carla Finkielstein, whose study of the cellular processes that affect tumors has received private funding from the Susan G. Komen and Avon foundations.
Finkielstein, whose lab is also supported by a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, thought it would be valuable for all the students who are involved in her research to understand its importance in the way that Kim can.
So she recently invited members of the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation (VCBF) to come to her laboratory and talk about their own experiences having had the disease.
"Bringing the advocates here today is the perfect way to humanize our science," Finkielstein explained shortly before the Oct. 19 event. "I want our students to understand that what we do is not in a test tube, but is going to impact someone else's life."
One of the speakers was Meg Shrader, a registered nurse who heads the VCBF's Blue Ridge chapter, and was treated for breast cancer in 2005 and 2006.
"We put a face to the disease," she said. "A lot of bench scientists, they don't treat patients so they never really get to see it."
Shrader works for Augusta Health, helping breast cancer patients navigate the health care system. She said meeting the students was an important opportunity for her as well as for them.
"It lets me know how hard they're working and how difficult this work truly is," Shrader said. "So when patients will say to me 'Are we ever going to find a cure to this disease?' I can say 'We have the best and brightest working on this.'"
Finkielstein and her team of researchers are focusing on the relationship between circadian rhythms -- the body's natural clock that synchronizes physiology and behavior to a 24-hour cycle -- and the natural processes of cell growth, division, and death. Those processes are altered in most cancers.
Epidemiological studies have shown a higher rate of breast cancer in women working in night shifts or other odd-hour jobs that disrupt one's normal circadian rhythm,
A better understanding of the relationship between disrupted circadian rhythms and cancer at the cellular level will provide information that could be factored into work schedules to reduce cancer risk for people in certain professions, she adds.
Down the road, her research also may help doctors treat tumors more effectively by providing clues as to when is the best time to administer medicines, Finkielstein says.
VBCF Advocacy and Constituency Coordinator Vernal Branch also spoke with the students. She said she hoped the experience would help inspire some students to continue to pursue their interest in fighting cancer.
"Hopefully out of some of these young minds, bright minds, we can find a cure for breast cancer," she said.
Among the students who watched her speak was Linda Villa, a San Diego native who is working toward a Ph.D. in cellular developmental biology.
"It's so easy to get lost in your day to day routine [in the lab]," Villa said shortly before the presentation. "It's really easy to forget the overall picture. I think that seeing that overall picture, we will get driven to work harder, but also to connect to the people that we're going to be affecting [with our research]."