MCW Cancer Center Trainees Present Research Findings to a National Audience

This spring, five MCW Cancer Center trainees in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) Fellowship Program showcased their research at the prestigious National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR). The annual event—one of the largest of its kind in the United States—creates a space for budding scientists to present their research findings, receive critical feedback, and network with leading experts in their fields. This year’s conference took place at the Long Beach Convention Center in Long Beach, California, boasting more than 5,000 attendees from across the nation.

NCUR Group Photo
The UWM program, now in its second year, was developed in collaboration with the MCW Cancer Center to equip promising undergrads with the knowledge and skills needed to explore cancer research from the front lines. The students’ participation on this national stage is a testament to the success of the immersive training program, and underscores the Center’s long-term commitment to cultivating the next generation of cancer researchers who will drive innovation and improve cancer outcomes for all.

Meet the UWM Cancer Research Trainees

Florin Saitis graduated from UWM in December 2023, earning degrees in Biological Sciences and from the university’s Honors College. Under the mentorship of Dr. Blake Hill, Florin investigated new ways to treat pancreatic cancer by targeting mitochondrial fission protein (Fis1), which plays a role in how cells grow and survive. At NCUR, he shared his research findings showing that a special peptide developed in the Hill Lab, called pep123, was effective in blocking Fis1 and may be a promising approach to treating pancreatic cancer. Florin, who hopes to attend medical school, said his favorite part of the fellowship program is the exceptional mentorship that helped strengthened his confidence and build his research skills.

“I was previously involved in biophysics research at UWM, but my grandmother’s scare with cancer prompted me to find more immediate avenues to make a difference in people’s lives. I was initially drawn to the UWM program because of its emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches. However, I learned my favorite part is the mentorship, both from the program directors and from my own mentor, Dr. Hill, who encouraged me and helped me gain confidence in my research abilities. While I am applying to medical school this cycle, I will never forget this experience; I hope I can return to MCW and continue doing this important research while also receiving training to become a physician,” said Saitis.

Rachel Kuehn, UWM senior, presented on the role of Myeloid Derived Suppressor Cells (MDSCs) in radiation resistance in head and neck cancer. MDSCs are immature cells that help tumors grow by releasing immunosuppressive cytokines, often attracting more MDSCs and making the tumor more resistant to radiation. Working alongside her mentor, Dr. Heather Himburg, and study partner Dr. Joseph Zenga, Rachel analyzed patient tumor samples collected post-surgery to see how the tumor microenvironment changed after radiation treatment. Based on the preliminary results shared at NCUR, Rachel said there are several factors related to MDSCs that are of interest and will be studied further upon completion of the experiment.

“I got involved in this program to try something outside of my comfort zone. After spending about two years at UWM doing undergraduate research in a lab that studied Alzheimer’s Disease, I wanted to explore other topics to determine if a career in research was something I’d truly like to pursue. What I’ve enjoyed most about my involvement is the talented mentors I’ve been able to work with and learn from. They have not only helped me identify the next steps in both my academic and career paths, but also have been extremely supportive and provided much-appreciated guidance throughout every step of my journey,” said Kuehn.

Zechariah Cummings, UWM junior, highlighted a study that aims to gather feedback from soft-tissue sarcoma survivors about their lifestyle habits before and after diagnosis, and how their treatment impacted these habits. While existing studies have shown that exercise and proper nutrition before surgery can reduce hospital stays and complications for patients with other types of cancer, there is currently no data for people with soft-tissue sarcoma. With guidance from his mentor, Dr. Whitney Morelli, Zechariah will help conduct one-on-one interviews to understand patients’ experiences with physical activity and nutrition before and after diagnosis, and their preferences for a prehabilitation program, which will be tested in a future pilot study.

“I am very grateful for the opportunity to be involved in this comprehensive program, as I wanted to get my foot in the door to explore cancer research and work alongside experts in the field. What I loved most about the training program was the fact that it allowed me to write proposals and start an independent project, which was a really great way to develop my skills. I recommend it to anyone who wants to get into cancer research and make a lasting impact,” said Cummings.

Chad Darnell, UWM senior, presented on the anti-tumor mechanisms of mitochondria-targeted compounds in Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common type of pancreatic cancer. Alongside his mentor, Dr. Michael Dwinell, Chad’s research aims to discover new immune targeted therapies to effectively treat the disease. At NCUR, he shared insights on a project that took a closer look at the antiproliferative effect of two different drugs to see which one may cause apoptosis (programmed cell death), and that determined the internal mechanisms of how apoptosis is occurring. Chad, who won a poster award on this work at the inaugural MCW Cancer Center Trainee Symposium, said the UWM program has furthered his desire to pursue a career in cancer research.

“I don’t come from a family of scientists, so I came into the program quite naive, not even knowing how a research lab functioned. It was challenging at first but I knew the only place to go was upward. In time, I learned how it all worked—how to conduct experiments and the role of lab managers, rotating technicians, and medical students. Aside from working under prominent MCW scientists, the most rewarding part of this program has been my ability to apply knowledge from the lab directly into my course work. My involvement has not only given me a leg up in classes, but it has also helped me be a leader and mentor to my UWM peers," said Darnell.

Ali Ishaq, UWM senior, shared how Natural Killer (NK) cells play a key role in managing mouse cytomegalovirus (MCMV) infections, with Ly49H+ NK cells specifically targeting infected cells. In his study, conducted under the mentorship of Dr. Subramaniam Malarkannan, Ali discovered that after MCMV infection, a unique subset of memory-like NK cells (Ly49HHi) appear, which are better equipped to fight future infections. He explained that this discovery enhances the understanding of memory NK cells and could lead to new cellular immunotherapies.

“My journey to getting accepted into the UWM program was challenging yet extremely rewarding. It put my determination to the test but has truly been a life-changing and profound experience that I know will boost my research career. I had the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Malarkannan, where together we advanced the understanding of how NK cells develop and function in response to pathogens and tumor cells, and their potential use for cancer immunotherapies. During my time in the program, I was also able to present at the Autumn Immunology Conference. This was the first time I spoke at a conference and I won an award for the top undergraduate abstract,” said Ishaq.

Learn how to get involved in the UWM Program by contacting Lisa Olson, MBA, Program Manager for the MCW Cancer Center Office of Cancer Research Training and Education Coordination (CRTEC).