Education is a hallmark of an academic cancer center, and Wilmot Cancer Institute is building a pipeline of research trainees with fresh energy and a special interest in cancer. A new Cancer Biology curriculum is fueling the pipeline as it kindles its way across the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, gaining momentum with each new crop of students.
The “team science” setting among cancer investigators is exciting to Zachary Sechrist, a second-year graduate student in the Pathology-Cell Biology program.
“Being in this environment, where we’re all working on a big problem — it’s cool,” he says. “The work we’re doing — no one’s role is small.”
Christina Kaszuba, a second-year student in the Biomedical Engineering graduate program, appreciates the various perspectives, such as a lecture that covered complementary approaches to cancer care with diet, exercise, and social well-being.
“When I tell people what I do — whether it’s family or friends — they’re excited because they know I’m excited,” Kaszuba says.
The special course concentration is the handiwork of Paula Vertino, Ph.D., the Wilmot Distinguished Professor in Cancer Genomics and senior associate dean for Basic Research at the UR Medical Center. Now overseen by Brian J. Altman, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biomedical Genetics and a member of Wilmot, the program is designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in cancer research.
“The concentration gives you a good link between bench and bedside,” says Bachelard Dieujuste, a second-year student in the Biomedical Genetics and Genomics graduate program. “It also gives you an overview of what’s out there. You have a web of opportunity.”
Following are a few stories about the trainees.
Hailing from Haiti, Bachelard Dieujuste always knew he wanted to study cancer, due to misconceptions about the disease back home.
“In Haiti, we don’t have any idea about cancer,” he says. “We think it’s a disease for rich people and that we are safe.”
He wanted to learn more, and then, he was touched by cancer personally when he lost his grandmother to ovarian cancer in 2017.
The next year, he started studying at Hunter College and by 2021 he had received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Biotechnology. As a second-year graduate student in the Vertino lab, he is focusing on the phenomenon by which chemical modifications turn genes on or off to promote breast cancer. For his thesis, he is choosing between two complex scientific questions involving cancer-causing genes.
Dieujuste hopes to bring his knowledge back home one day — to spread awareness of cancer screening and prevention.
“Ignorance is another type of disease that kills millions of people in developing countries who can't afford to think about things like cancer,” he says.
Christina Kaszuba has been interested in science for as long as she can remember. When she started college, she was keen to explore many different fields. It wasn’t until she did an internship at MERCK that she fell in love with cancer research.
“When my boss at the time introduced my project to me and gave me an overview of the disease and how many people are affected, that was my ah-ha moment,” Kaszuba says.
In 2021, Kaszuba joined the Biomedical Engineering graduate program at the University of Rochester. She now works between the labs of Jeevisha Bajaj, Ph.D., a Wilmot member and assistant professor of Biomedical Genetics, and Hani Awad, Ph.D., professor of Orthopaedics and Biomedical Engineering. She studies leukemia’s microenvironment — the cells and molecules that support cancer development — in bone.
As an engineer, Kaszuba hopes to discover which cell types or components of the bone contribute to cancer development, which would add to existing knowledge and may uncover new drug targets.
Ultimately, she says her dream is to develop new cancer drugs.
When fifth-year toxicology graduate student Emily Quarato started graduate school, she was pretty set against studying cancer.
“I have been very lucky and don't have much personal loss due to cancer,” she says, “so I felt that I would be more passionate about other sectors of research.”
But that changed when she rotated through the lab of her now-graduate mentor, Laura M. Calvi, M.D., the SKAWA Foundation Professor of Endocrinology and Metabolism and co-leader of Wilmot’s Cancer Microenvironment research program.
In the Calvi lab, where Quarato studies bone marrow cells, she learned about their connections to cancer.
“I slowly saw how intertwined all mechanisms are and it's just determining which step goes wrong to lead to different outcomes like osteoporosis or cancer,” she says.
Her focus is on how aging or radiation, like cancer radiotherapy, can injure and weaken bones. She discovered how a certain type of stem cell becomes damaged, preventing it from developing into healthy bone.
Quarato earned bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and chemistry from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Emily Whitt, a fourth-year student in the Pathology — Cell Biology of Disease graduate program, wants to understand the molecular switch that tells breast cancer cells to spread to other tissues.
“There are effective treatments available for breast cancer when caught early, but metastatic breast cancer is currently incurable,” Whitt says.
While it’s not clear exactly what causes tumor cells to send tendrils out to invade surrounding tissues, it likely involves chemical modification of proteins, called histones, that turn genes on and off.
So far, Whitt has discovered that the loss of one such modifications on histone H4, causes breast cancer cells to invade surrounding tissues more efficiently. Now, she is working to understand the mechanisms behind this phenomenon.
When Whitt thinks about her job, she is inspired.
“Keeping it in perspective is motivating,” she says. “In fact, what I do is actually benefitting people.”
Whitt grew up in Pullman, WA, and earned a bachelor’s degree in Biophysics from Brigham Young University before beginning her studies at the UR.
When Zachary Sechrist was 12 years old, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. For years, she underwent treatment and dealt with complications that physically drained her.
“As a kid, I knew she was sick but did not understand the gravity of cancer. As I become more involved in this field, I realize that the worrying is the most draining part,” Sechrist says. “I hope to contribute to understanding this disease so we can take the worrying out of cancer treatment, reducing the burden on both the patient and family.”
Working with mentor Calvin Cole, Ph.D., assistant professor of Surgery and Orthopaedics and a Wilmot member, Sechrist is studying cancer-related cachexia (or muscle wasting), a common side effect that diminishes quality of life and can prevent patients from being able to withstand certain treatments. Cachexia may be driven by chronic, low-grade inflammation induced by the tumor. This is an active area of research locally and internationally; Wilmot was recently awarded a $2.6 million Cancer Grand Challenges grant to study cachexia.
For his thesis, Sechrist will tease apart the complicated cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying cachexia to identify a possible drug target.
With a bachelor’s degree from Clarkson University, Sechrist joined the graduate program at UR in 2021.
Building a Bond Around Cancer
Any graduate student will tell you that having a strong social support group — one that understands the struggles — can be a lifesaver.
That is one reason why students in the cancer biology concentration banded together in early 2021 to form the Wilmot Cancer Trainees (WilCaTs) group. Emily Quarato and Emily Whitt are among the leaders.
“We try to bring together student cancer researchers, postdocs, and medical students, so that we can talk about our research, and connect in a more social way as well,” says Whitt, WilCaTs co-president.
“We’re not exclusionary,” adds Quarato, who serves as treasurer and community outreach coordinator. “If someone wants to come, hang out, and learn — that’s what the point of the group is. You don’t have to be doing something that’s specifically cancer-related.”
WilCaTs is growing and holding more student-led workshops where members can teach specific lab skills or techniques, or review grant applications or papers. This sort of peer-to-peer learning can open up new research avenues. Students may learn a better way to perform a technique that could get them out of a failed-experiment rut. Or they may learn a completely new skill that could help them ask and answer research questions. Leveraging the group’s collective knowledge and experience, they can work out the kinks on a grant proposal or ensure a scientific paper tells a coherent story. Ultimately, Quarato says, the goal is for students to “support each other not only in our own training, but also just mentally and socially.”
The group has started to get involved in more community events, like the 2022 Wilmot Survivor’s Night, a celebration and tribute to those who have faced cancer that takes place at a Red Wings baseball game each year. The WilCaTs group attended the event as a social outing and hosted an informational table where
community members could learn about cancer research.
Quarato also helped organize the 2023 STEM Community Day, an event to inspire local high school students to pursue careers in science or medicine. Working with others, Quarato helped bring the event back in person — a first since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.
“A lot of us are really interested in trying to get the word out about our science and to interact with those that we can actually help,” Whitt says. “There seems to be students who are very interested in this field of research,” she adds. “We just need to give them a home.”