"My research aims to identify the non-genetic mechanism used by Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer cells to evade death in response to targeted therapy treatment to the EGFR receptor (a first-line treatment for advanced cases of lung cancer). By defining the molecular basis for cancer cell survival, we can develop more effective treatment strategies for patients."
“This award is very meaningful to me because when I think back to when I started college, as a first-generation college student, I didn’t even know being scientist was a career option; I didn’t know career options other than being a medical doctor existed for people interested in science. It’s crazy to think about everything that has changed between then and now.”
Julie Huynh is an MD/PhD student in her 2rd year of her PhD program and is the 2020 winner of the MCB Outstanding Graduate for Scholarship. This award is presented to a graduate student in MCB with outstanding research publications, presentations at meetings and scholarships awarded. During her undergraduate studies at the University of Arizona (B.S. MCB ‘14, M.S. MCB ‘15) Julie worked in Dr. Hanna Fares’ lab five years and during that time, she realized she loved doing research and made it a goal to continue doing research in her future career. Julie has completed the first two years of her medical training at the College of Medicine-Tucson and is now a PhD candidate in MCB, in the laboratory of Dr. Andrew Paek where she researches mechanisms of resistance that cancer cells develop to targeted therapies.
I asked Julie why she chose the MD/PhD path rather than focus on one or the other and she told me her career goal is to become a physician-scientist in pediatric hematology/oncology. “I want to run a lab where I develop research questions, using my PhD training and clinical observations from patients in my clinic, on mechanisms of cancer development and treatment resistance. I have seen first-hand how cancer affects the lives of patients and their families and want to both be there and hold their hand through it all as their clinician and further our understanding of cancer biology and treatments to generate as much knowledge as possible to fight this disease. Additionally, as important as starting my own research program is to me, I also want to be in positions that give me the opportunity to teach. As a first-generation college student, I have been extremely fortunate to have amazing mentors and professors help me through my schooling and would not be in the position I am today without them. I want to be a similar figure to all future students I have and be a part of training the next generation of scientists.”
Julie is a focused and goal oriented person and has been working in Dr. Paek’s lab since August 2018 on her research for her PhD. “My research aims to elucidate mechanisms used by some cancer cells to evade death in response to treatment. Almost 40% of men and women will develop cancer during their lifetime, making cancer treatment development extremely important. Chemotherapies are traditionally used for treatment; however, they cause many major side effects for patients. Because of this, targeted therapies (drugs that specifically target cancer proteins) have been developed that result in less side effects for patients. Unfortunately, resistance to these targeted therapies remains a major problem—while they initially kill a majority of cancer cells, a subset develops resistance to the drugs and subsequently survive leading to treatment failure. My research aims to identify the non-genetic mechanism used by Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer cells to evade death in response to targeted therapy treatment to the EGFR receptor (a first-line treatment for advanced cases of lung cancer). By defining the molecular basis for cancer cell survival, we can develop more effective treatment strategies for patients.”
Her research was moving along as planned until all “in lab” research was halted in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked her how not going to the lab every day has impacted her research. “In Paek's lab, about 50% or our research work is computational so I'm doing that now that I can’t go in to the lab. We can't generate new data but we can dig deeper into previous big datasets we generated from when we were in the lab.” She also just completed her application for an NIH Fellowship grant. “There's a lot of time you need to put into that application! It kept me focused for the first two weeks of staying at home.” Now that the grant is submitted, Julie plans on spending time increasing her knowledge of Matlab and R. “I will spend more time learning those programming skills and processing the data I do have. And there are always research papers to read! As a grad student, there is never nothing to do.”
It seems all of us struggle with staying focused during this pandemic, so I asked Julie how she is staying focused and if she has any tips. These strategies are what work for Julie right now:
1.) maintain a routine. COVID-19 may have thrown normalcy out the window but you can still develop your own ‘new normal’ to help re-ground yourself. One of my favorite parts of starting the work day was getting my coffee in the mornings so the first thing I do every morning is just that, to get me in the working mindset.
2.) I have a realistic list of two, maximum three, things I need to get done for the day that I plan out the night before but ….
3.) be forgiving of yourself if it just can’t get done. We’re trying to work in the middle of a pandemic—it’s quite overwhelming so ….
4.) reach out to others if you’re struggling. Work isn’t going to get done if your mental health isn’t being taken care of.
“As someone who always preferred to work anywhere but my home, this abrupt transition was hard for me, like it is for everyone else,” Julie told me. She also talked about resilience and how that has helped her get through rough times in her life. “I think all humans are resilient to some degree. When you get faced with a new crisis or issue resilience comes out. When I grew up I had situations where I had to be resilient. When people are faced with an issue, everyone learns how to adapt. The switch for when people adapt the quickest, is when they recognize there is a current problem and focusing on how to solve that problem. Ruminating on the future doesn’t help much; focus on the current problem and how to tackle that problem. Recognize this is not ideal. My life has been put on hold, but I accept this as the current situation and focus on how to make this situation better rather than wishing the situation gets better.”
While Julie puts in countless hours on schoolwork, studying, and research, she also makes times for non-science focused activities. She is a writer and artist. “I've always been interested in the arts - writing fiction and poetry and doing art.” She had fiction magazine subscriptions as a child and loved them. One of her favorite memories from undergrad was finding out UA has literary magazine – Persona. Julie was the editor for this magazine for two years and then when she started medical school, she discovered Harmony magazine and started working on that. “I've been editor of Harmony Magazine for three years. It's one of my favorite things to do and one thing that tied over from childhood to now!”
With a broad set of experiences, we know Julie has acquired many skills so I asked her what she believes the two most important ones she’s learned. First was asking for help when she needed it. “You are always learning new things in life and when you learn new things you will inevitably need help so don't be too afraid to ask and embrace feeling vulnerable!” Second was “going after all the experiences and opportunities I've been interested in. The worst thing someone can tell you is no or it doesn't work out. The best thing is, you do it and it turns out even better than you expected it to be. Either way, you learn something and you'll never get the positives without.”
Congratulations Julie, and your most recent award, and your many other achievements!