2nd Annual Trainee Symposium Celebrates Learners Pushing Past Barriers to Unlock Cancer Discoveries

People at Trainee Symposium

On March 7, students, postdoctoral fellows, cancer scientists, and clinicians packed the Zoofari Conference Center for the 2nd Annual MCW Cancer Center Trainee Symposium. Building on the success of the inaugural symposium in 2023, this year the scientific and educational event created a space for nearly 50 cancer trainees to share their research findings through oral and speed presentations, and a poster session.

Pushing Past Barriers, Unlocking Cancer Discoveries

William Hall, MD, Professor of Radiation Oncology and Surgery, and event co-chair, kicked off the symposium with remarks on the importance of investing in trainees who bring fresh perspectives, ideas, and skills to the field. He noted that “trainees, with our support and guidance, can accelerate the pace of scientific discoveries. They bring enthusiasm, dedication, and a willingness to explore new avenues, which can lead to significant breakthroughs in understanding cancer biology, developing new treatments, and building a healthier community for everyone.”

MCW Cancer Center Director Gustavo Leone, PhD, added that early-career scientists are driven by a sense of exploration and curiosity, which is why they are often the first to see lab observations that may lead to extraordinary breakthroughs. “This is a very special time in your careers. You have a huge opportunity and responsibility to be meticulous in your observations, to push those observations forward, to fail experiments and try them again, and to eventually realize that your observations have led to the discovery of subtle but significant phenomena,” he said.

Learning from Next-Gen Scientists

Trainees at all levels—undergraduates to post-doctoral fellows—shared their research findings through oral and poster presentations, and during a newly added event feature: two-minute speed presentations. The audience listened, learned, and asked questions as the presenters spoke on a wide spectrum of cancer research topics, such as:

  • The role of retinoblastoma and E2Fs in the cell cycle;
  • Radiomics and radiopathomics in pediatric brain cancer;
  • The use of Spanish proverbs among Latina women and implications for cancer prevention interventions;
  • Reconstituting full-length mitochondrial fission protein 1, Fis1, and assessing its inhibitory role in pancreatic cancer; and
  • How selpercatinib and the mitochondria-targeted antioxidant MitoQ suppresses RET–mutated thyroid cancer

Attendees had the opportunity to learn from keynote speaker Ross Levine, MD, a world-renowned leukemia specialist and physician-scientist who serves as Deputy Physician-in-Chief of Translational Research, and as Laurence Joseph Dineen Chair in Leukemia Research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Researchers in Dr. Levine’s lab aim to improve understanding of the genetic basis of blood disorders known as myeloid malignancies and use this knowledge to improve therapies for patients with such disorders.

In his inspirational address, Dr. Levine described the unpredictable trajectory of his career, and how a pivotal discovery he made in Dr. Robert Kurman’s lab ignited his passion for further scientific exploration.

“It was an amazing experience that changed it all for me. Our project was focused on manual sequencing in a gene called p53—I mostly broke sequencing plates and failed experiments, like all of us do when we’re just starting out in the lab. By the end of that summer, I found something: mutations in gene p53 in uterine serous cancer. It was in that moment I thought, ‘Wow, I might be able to discover things no one knew and be part of something that could benefit people.’ Those moments are rare and special, and I wanted to experience a lot more of them,” said Dr. Levine.

Fostering a Lifetime Commitment to Science

The Trainee Symposium is just one of several MCW Cancer Center initiatives designed to enhance cancer research training and education, and support career development for a diverse population of learners at all levels. The recent establishment of the Office of Cancer Research Training and Education (CRTEC), which aids in the coordination and evaluation of MCW training and education activities, further demonstrates the center’s commitment to supporting the next generation of scientists who will drive innovation and help improve cancer outcomes.

“This year’s Trainee Symposium was not only a showcase of incredible knowledge but also a demonstration of curiosity and collaboration, further highlighting the deep level of dedication and talent of the next generation of cancer researchers,” said Kristina Kaljo, PhD, Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Assistant Director of CRTEC. “We are already planning the 2025 symposium, eager to continue fostering innovation. Thank you to all who participated!”

The MCW Cancer Center thanks the CRTEC team, administrative staff, and event planning committee that helped make the 2nd Annual MCW Cancer Center Trainee Symposium a success. We look forward to seeing you at the next symposium in 2025!

Congratulations to the 2024 Trainee Symposium Poster Winners! Pictured above left to right: Subramaniam Malarkannan, PhD, event co-chair; Gustavo Leone, PhD; Suha Malik, undergraduate winner; Sana Parveen, PhD, post-doc winner; Josiah Murray, BS, graduate winner; and William Hall, MD, event co-chair.