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Education: Employee Profiles

Annual Report - 2006-2007

Science Lessons

By Mary Jane Schier

Robin Fuchs-Young, Ph.D.

Robin Fuchs-Young, Ph.D., contends “scientists are not born in graduate school” so young people must be inspired to consider careers in biomedical sciences as early as possible.
“Our future scientists are in the K-12 classrooms now, and we need to expose them to the importance of science and the many opportunities they have for rewarding careers,” observes Fuchs-Young, associate professor in the Department of Carcinogenesis and director of the Community Outreach and Education Program (COEP) at M. D. Anderson’s Virginia Harris Cockrell Cancer Research Center in Smithville, Texas.

Fuchs-Young is the first M. D. Anderson faculty member to receive a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to support comprehensive scientific education initiatives. She predicts the five-year, $750,000 grant awarded in 2007 will help “touch thousands of students, teachers and Smithville citizens for years to come.”

The grant funds the Community Education Networks to Integrate Prevention of Environmental Disease that is tailoring health and science educational programs to the needs of rural students and teachers.

Fuchs-Young says the project is among many activities of M. D. Anderson’s Community Outreach and Education Core, a component of the National Institutes of Health-funded Center for Research on Environmental Disease, which investigates environmental factors linked to human diseases and aims to develop methods to detect and prevent them.

“Although not all students participating in our programs will decide to pursue careers in science or medicine, they’ll still benefit from gaining a greater understanding of scientific principles and concepts, which should allow them to make better decisions for themselves, their families and their communities,” she says.

The new project will provide on-site field trips, hands-on classroom activities, mentoring opportunities and educational programs for Smithville-area residents. Some high school students can work as interns in the lab, while teachers can attend workshops and obtain assistance with science lessons.

In addition to the Howard Hughes grant, Fuchs-Young and the COEP also received a Short Term Educational Experiences for Research grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to support the summer undergraduate research program for college students.

Fuchs-Young joined M. D. Anderson in 1996 after four years at Eli Lilly and Company, where she helped develop raloxifene, an oral selective estrogen receptor modulator used to prevent osteoporosis and to reduce breast cancer incidence in women at high risk for the disease. Becoming COEP director in 1999 allowed her to combine her passion for teaching with research focused on the hormonal control of breast cancer. 

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The Art and Science of Mentoring

By Mary Jane Schier

Dean G. Tang, M.D., Ph.D.

It has been more than two decades since Dean G. Tang, M.D., Ph.D., met the man who motivated him to become a scientist.
“I had a wonderful mentor while working on my master’s degree in oncologic pathology at Wuhan University School of Medicine in China,” Tang recalls. “Not only did he encourage me to pursue a scientific career, but he also made me realize the importance of mentoring.”

Now an associate professor in the Department of Carcinogenesis at M. D. Anderson’s Virginia Harris Cockrell Cancer Research Center in Smithville, Texas, Tang received the 2007 Robert M. Chamberlain Distinguished Mentor Award for teaching excellence. The award was created to honor Robert M. Chamberlain, Ph.D., professor and deputy chair of the Department of Epidemiology, and director of the National Cancer Institute-funded Cancer Prevention Education and Teaching Program.

Tang was chosen from 24 faculty members nominated by postdoctoral fellows. Tracy Costello, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Health Disparities Research and chair of M. D. Anderson’s Postdoctoral Association, says Tang exemplifies the fundamental traits of good mentorship and epitomizes the award’s “teach, coach, sponsor” motto.

After earning his medical degree at Tongji Medical University in China, Tang obtained his Ph.D. in cancer biology at Wayne State University Medical School in Detroit and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at University College in London. Since joining M. D. Anderson in 2000, he has directly supervised 11 graduate students and 17 postdocs and trained three clinical fellows.

What are his secrets to being a good mentor?

“First and foremost, I try to set the example by being knowledgeable, working hard and demonstrating passion about my research. I also strive to be accessible to the students and postdocs, and I give them credit for helping solve scientific problems,” explains Tang, who is proud to be an honorary professor at Wuhan University School of Medicine, the place where he learned the combined value of science and mentoring.

Tang’s research involves identifying molecular markers that can be used to identify and target tumorigenic prostate cancer stem cells. His laboratory has developed several tissue-specific animal models to address stem cell-related issues. 

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When Difficult Concepts Become Clear

By Eileen A. Ellig

Erika Thompson

Erika Thompson was shocked to learn she had been named Staff Educator of the Year, but her students weren’t surprised at all.
“We love working with Erika,” say M. D. Anderson School of Health Sciences students Prince Otchere, Juma Kabanja and Jun Li of their mentor and teacher.

As manager of the DNA Analysis Facility, Thompson supervises the day-to-day operations of the core lab and assists principal investigators with their research projects, helping them carry out sophisticated DNA sequencing, genotyping and quantitative gene expression studies.

When Thompson’s not sharing her expertise with investigators, she’s sharing her knowledge with future allied health professionals interested in cytogenetics and molecular genetics.

One of the best things about working in her lab, her students say, is they get to do everything themselves.

“She walks you through the steps, but then everything from there you get to experience firsthand,” says Otchere, who, along with Kabanja and Li, is pursuing a degree in molecular genetics technology, one of eight allied health programs offered at M. D. Anderson.

Another plus for these students is they get their own samples, which allows them to start a project from scratch and to generate their own results. Thompson says it’s exciting “to see when they get a result for the first time and realize that what they did worked.”

Thompson’s interest in science goes way back to elementary school. Growing up in a “science household,” she never really considered anything else, except becoming a doctor.

“I thought that’s what I wanted to do, then I took some lab courses in college and realized I was happy in the lab and that’s where I wanted to be,” says Thompson, who taught clinical chemistry and clinical instrumentation while pursuing her master’s degree at Florida International University.

Her students are glad she chose the lab, too, and happy to have the opportunity to work with Thompson.

Simply put, they say, “She’s great.”

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© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center