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Honoring Sons, Recognizing Students

Conquest - Summer 2008

By Mary Jane Schier

Brian Grabiner (right) with Xin Lin, Ph.D.

The gratitude of two Houston mothers, whose sons were successfully treated for testicular cancer, sparked an endowment that has raised $850,000 to help more than 50 graduate students conduct promising research, supervised by M. D. Anderson scientists.

Their rationale: “There can be no answers without research, and there can be no research without funds to support dedicated scientists. The determination of those committed to the defeat of this dread disease will continue to inspire all of us …”

When they formed the Andrew Sowell-Wade Huggins Endowed Scholarship Fund in 1991, Joann Sowell and Marcia Huggins Jahncke wanted to honor their sons and recognize students pursuing degrees at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Five years later, they created Cancer Answers, a charitable organization that now includes scholarships in memory of KHOU-TV newsman Sylvan Rodriguez, who died in 2000 from pancreatic cancer.

Since 2002, four sets of M. D. Anderson faculty and their graduate students have jointly received awards through the umbrella of Cancer Answers. 

“Being chosen an Andrew Sowell-Wade Huggins Scholar allowed me to complete a research project and strengthen my thesis,” says Brian Grabiner, who studies how a newly characterized protein may contribute to breast cancer development and lead to targeted therapies.

Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., Grabiner was encouraged to excel by parents who have doctorate degrees in sociology. After starting graduate school at State University of New York, he met Xin Lin, Ph.D., who had received his Ph.D. from GSBS in 1995. When Lin was recruited in 2004 to M. D. Anderson as an associate professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Oncology, Grabiner transferred to GSBS.

“Dr. Lin is a great mentor. He has taught me so much more than all the fundamental methods needed to conduct research,” says Grabiner, who recently defended his thesis and will receive his Ph.D. this summer. In September, he begins a postdoctoral fellowship at the Whitehead Institute at MIT in Boston.

Grabiner credits his grandfather, an engineer who died from bladder cancer, and cancer patients he has seen almost every day at M. D. Anderson with “inspiring me to work harder on research that can help save lives.”

Claudia Miller (seated) and Joya Chandra, Ph.D.

Claudia Miller also is following in the footsteps of  mentor Joya Chandra, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Division of Pediatrics, who received a Sowell-Huggins Scholarship before earning her Ph.D. from GSBS in 1998.

After postdoctoral fellowships at the Karolinska Institute and the Mayo Clinic, Chandra joined the M. D. Anderson faculty in 2002. “Claudia was my first graduate student here, so I feel like a proud parent about her success,” she says.

“I’ve always been interested in science,” says Miller, whose father is a high school physics teacher in Brownsville, Texas. She received her master’s degree from GSBS in 2003 with Janet Price, D.Phil., associate professor in the Department of Cancer Biology at M. D. Anderson, as her adviser.

Since working in Chandra’s laboratory, Miller has concentrated on translational research aimed at reducing the toxicity of leukemia drugs and designing better methods to increase survival. Receiving a Cancer Answers/Sylvan Rodriguez Scholarship was “very special because it recognizes both my research efforts and my community service in promoting science education in local schools,” says Miller, who anticipates getting her Ph.D. next year.

Timothy McDonnell, M.D., Ph.D., with Nicole Pinaire

Nicole Pinaire was considering several offers to play semi-professional softball but chose cancer research instead. 

“I was passionate about softball, played in college at St. Louis University and also in Europe,” Pinaire remembers. “However, I was also fascinated with science.”

After learning about M. D. Anderson’s partnership in operating GSBS, she enrolled in the graduate school in 2003 and later asked Timothy McDonnell, M.D., Ph.D., to be her mentor. 

McDonnell, who came to M. D. Anderson in 1991, is a professor and deputy chair of the Department of Hematopathology. He has been widely honored for research to define the molecular genetic alterations that cumulatively result in cancer formation and tumor progression. In addition to having taught several courses at GSBS, he also has directed 11 students who have completed advanced degrees.

The two were selected as the 2007-2008 Sowell-Huggins Professor and Fellow in recognition of their research and McDonnell’s devotion to mentoring.

“I am studying two genes that are impacted by the tumor suppressor gene p53, which is mutated in at least 25 percent of advanced prostate cancers. Because p53 is the gatekeeper gene that controls so many other genes, it is important to understand the mutations much earlier in the disease so we can develop ways to prevent its metastasis,” explains Pinaire, who hopes to receive her Ph.D. in 2009.

“We are both grateful to the families of the two young men successfully treated for cancer,” McDonnell says. “It’s wonderful that they wanted to support research that will continue making a difference in the lives of patients around the world.”


Wade Huggins owns a custom cabinetry company in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife, Amy, and three children. Andy Sowell is a commercial real estate broker who lives with his wife, Sherra, and two children in the Houston home where he grew up. Both men are active board members for Cancer Answers.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center