Q&A: Finding and Exploiting Cancer’s Weaknesses

My latest story posted on Science Careers:

Oncologist David Solit, 41, has some close professional role models: His father was a surgeon and his grandfather a family practitioner. Like many doctors who pursue oncology, he became interested in the disease after a relative died from breast cancer. But it was a laboratory rotation during his oncology fellowship that sealed his interest in cancer research.

“My interest was not to stay in the clinic and try to use the drugs that we had, which, in my opinion, were not very good,” Solit says. “I thought it would be best to stay in the lab and to try to actually develop some better treatments that we could bring into the clinic.”

Now, Solit holds the Elizabeth and Felix Rohatyn Chair for Junior Faculty and heads his own laboratory in the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. His lab studies a particular signaling pathway, the RAS/RAF/MEK/ERK pathway, which regulates cell growth and survival in several cancers. “We try to identify the underlying genetic basis of different tumor types and then develop novel therapies that will exploit the specific mutations that drive tumorigenesis or cancer progression,” he says. Solit is the author of an upcoming Perspective in Science Signaling on MEK resistance, which will be published on 29 March.

Solit spoke with Science Careers earlier this month about his research and his career path. The following highlights from the interview were edited for brevity and clarity. A full transcript of the conversation is available on CTSciNet.

Click here to continue reading on the Science Careers Web site.

The article was part of a special issue of Science on cancer; see the list of all related content in all the Science publications at www.sciencemag.org/special/cancer2011/.

Sharing Data in Biomedical and Clinical Research

This month I wrote an extensive piece on data sharing in clinical and biomedical research, which was posted on CTSciNet and Science Careers. What I originally envisioned as a primer on the topic turned into a massive undertaking, and the final result is still just a fraction of the material on the topic. The focus for this piece, as it is for most articles for CTSciNet and Science Careers, was to provide actionable advice to early-career researchers.

The story was one of three we ran in Science Careers: regular contributor Chelsea Wald did a fantastic job looking at biomedical ontology as both a field and a tool (Chelsea writes an amusing reporter’s notebook on it that involves unicorns), and my colleague Elisabeth Pain, Europe editor for Science Careers, talked to scientists in a variety of fields about the skills needed to manage, analyze and comprehend the volumes of data that overwhelm most fields.

And all of THOSE were part of a massive, cross-publication effort on the topic of data. See all the stories and articles here.

For Physician-Scientist Couple, Success is in Balance

When people ask — and they do ask — where Deepali Kumar and Atul Humar’s clinical and research interests diverge, the two scientists answer patiently. Both physician-scientists at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, Deepali and Atul are a couple, and both are specialists in transplant infectious diseases. “My interest is in herpes viruses in transplant patients,” Atul says. “And my main interest is in vaccines and improving vaccine responses in transplant patients,” Deepali says.

Instead of focusing on the differences between them, Deepali and Atul embrace the similarities. They can cover each other’s patients, deal interchangeably with administrative issues, even manage each other’s research projects when necessary. The flexible arrangement allows them to spend as much time as they can with their three children, ages 4, 6, and 8. They think they are the only couple in the world working together on transplant-related infectious diseases. And working together, they say, is their unique strength as physicians and researchers. “Working together is really synergistic,” says Deepali, who is 37. “It’s really the collaboration that produces good science.”

Published on Science Careers, Feb. 26, 2010. Read the whole story here.

Perspective: Three Crucial Questions When Applying to M.D.-Ph.D. Programs

For all the work you’ll do during your bachelor’s degree and the careful consideration you’ll put into choosing the right doctoral program, it’s important to remember that you’ve only just set out on the journey--and you can change routes.

“I was very anti-premed when I was in college,” says Karla Leavens, now a 5th-year student in the M.D.-Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania. “I really loved biology and science.” But during her junior year, she took an endocrinology course and discovered that she really enjoyed the clinical application of biology. At that point, she hadn’t taken the MCAT or otherwise prepared to apply to medical school, so she went ahead with graduate school applications and continued with her initial plan for a career in research. “I never figured I could switch [degree programs], but I figured I could get some sort of training–go to med school afterwards or … take some clinically oriented classes,” she says.

After she started her Ph.D. in the cell biology and physiology program at Penn, she noticed that many people were doing both clinical work and research–and that was the path she decided to take. She took the MCAT the summer after starting at Penn and applied to the M.D.-Ph.D. program that fall. The following year, 2 years after starting her Ph.D., she entered the M.D.-Ph.D. program. “It really helps to keep options open,” Leavens advises. “Ultimately, it’s your life and your career, and you have to decide what that is.”

Click here to read the whole story, which I co-authored with Skip Brass.

Perspective: Speed Networking for Scientists

Although speed dating was invented by a Los Angeles, California, rabbi as a way for Jewish singles to meet, speed dating and its cousin, speed networking, were rapidly and widely adopted in New York City. That seems fitting, quips Brian Kelly, director of the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise and Commercialization at Weill Cornell Medical College: New York is a city where “you’re going to know the guy who delivers your Chinese food better than the guy who lives next door.” The same can be said of large research institutions such as Weill Cornell, he says: “People on the fourth floor here don’t know what happens on the fifth floor.”

Kelly was on the team that wrote the grant proposal for Weill Cornell’s Clinical and Translational Science Award, which they received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in September 2007. At a brainstorming session for the project in the summer of 2006, Kelly and his colleagues were thinking of innovative ways to promote new collaborations among researchers across CTSC’s diverse institutions. Kelly had just read an article on speed dating in New York City, so he suggested it as something they could apply in the context of CTSC. None of the proposals, he says, “hit home in terms of the ability to get to know your neighbor as well as speed networking.” Julianne Imperato-McGinley, principal investigator of the CTSC, picked up on the suggestion and incorporated it into the grant proposal.

Once CTSC had its funding, Weill Cornell hired consultant Louise Holmes, an employment-skills consultant (and the author of the accompanying Perspective), to plan what would be called the Translational Research Bazaar. “There were very few, if any, examples of speed networking with this particular demographic,” she says. So she watched YouTube videos of speed-networking events and attended a Manhattan Chamber of Commerce speed-networking event to get a feel for the setup and flow. But there was one question those events couldn’t answer: Would the scientists buy into it?

Click here to read this story, which I co-authored with Louise Holmes.