Julie Bray, Ph.D.
Main Focus: TET2/3-mediated epigenetic dysregulation during pancreatic cancer development
Julie Bray completed her Ph.D. in Medical Sciences with
concentrations in Cancer Biology and Clinical & Translational
Science at the University of Florida in 2019. Under the mentorship of
Dr. Thomas Schmittgen, her thesis work focused on the molecular
mechanisms of acinar-to-ductal metaplasia (ADM), which is largely
believed to be the initial event towards pancreatic cancer
development. Using a novel transgenic mouse model, Bray characterized
the role of RE-1 Silencing Transcription Factor (REST) during
pancreatic injury and induced trans-differentiation. Furthermore, Bray
applied human pancreas organoid models to investigate biological
predispositions of patients towards aberrant ADM. Her doctoral work
was funded by a TL1 training fellowship with the Clinical and
Translational Science Institute at the University of Florida, a
Pre-doctoral Award from the Health Cancer Center at the University of
Florida, and an F31 fellowship from the National Institute of
Health/National Cancer Institute. Under her current mentor Dr. Anirban
Maitra, Julie is focusing on cell autonomous and stromal-dependent
mechanisms of genome-wide methylation abnormalities that drive
pancreatic cancer progression. Such information will not only deepen
the knowledge of epigenetic reprogramming in pancreatic cancer but may
uncover a potential therapeutic avenue in this otherwise recalcitrant
disease. Bray’s long-term career goal is to continue in academic
research of pancreatic cancer biology in pursuit of new translational
therapies to offer the
Maria Castaneda, Ph.D.
Main focus: FOXC2, Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition, mitotic bookmarking
Maria Castaneda completed her Ph.D. in 2019 from The University of Texas at Dallas, in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
During her graduate studies, Castaneda worked on the inhibition of the epithelial-mesenchymal transition by targeting the transcription factor FOXC2. Castaneda has discovered the first direct small molecule inhibitor of FOXC2, MC-1-F2, also known as the only direct small molecule inhibitor of EMT regulating transcription factors. This work on FOXC2 inhibition has led to a patent on MC-1-F2 and a cover feature in ChemBioChem. Further work continues to be done on MC-1-F2 and its therapeutic potential. Currently, Castaneda works under the supervision of Dr. Mani in the Department of Translational Molecular Pathology. Her current interests continue to align with a deeper understanding of cancer pathology and the epithelial-mesenchymal transition. Castaneda will focus on further understanding the role of FOXC2 in cancer-stem cell generation and FOXC2’s role in mitotic bookmarking. These studies will aid in the development of therapies targeting cancer recurrence and metastasis. Along with Castaneda’s research interest are her passion for outreach. During her graduate studies Castaneda founded the Chemistry Graduate Student Association (CGSA) at the University of Texas at Dallas as well as founding the student chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Castaneda has dedicated her time and energy into improving the representation of minorities in STEM education. In recognition of Castaneda’s hard work she has been awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and Eugene McDermott Fellowship during her graduate career. Fellowships that have allowed her to devote time to both research and outreach.
Eugene Lurie, Ph.D.
Main Focus: Machine learning algorithms for early detection of pancreatic cancer; precision medicine
Eugene Lurie completed his Ph.D. in Genetics and Genomics in 2019 at Baylor College of Medicine in the lab of Dr. Aleksandar Milosavljevic. His thesis work focused on utilizing DNA methylation to footprint: 1.) the regulatory effects of non-coding genetic variation and 2.) cell-type specific signals in pancreatic cancer. The former project identified thousands of non-coding variants that impacted the surrounding epigenomic landscape in cis across a multitude of tissues and resulted in a co-first author publication in Science, which was awarded the Molecular and Human Genetics Department best student publication of 2019 at Baylor College of Medicine. The latter project utilized in silico deconvolution approaches to uncover cell-type specific signals buried within bulk pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma tissue datasets in order to study the biology of the cancer cell in its native tumor microenvironment. During his graduate studies, Eugene was awarded the John Trentin Scholarship Award for Outstanding Academic performance, was a Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center Symposium poster winner, and was an invited speaker at both national and international meetings. His current interests include applying computational methods to aid in the improvement of early detection of pancreatic cancer with the goal of identifying useful liquid biomarkers and developing an accurate classifier by utilizing machine learning methods for these purposes. His long-term career plan is to serve as a bioinformatician in whichever capacity will allow him to leverage his scientific training to alleviate the suffering of cancer patients.
Main Focus: Characterizing the T-cell receptor (TCR) repertoires of Lynch Syndrome (LS) patients
Ana Bolivar completed her M.S. in Diagnostic Genetics from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center School of Health Professions and is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Cancer Biology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Science (GSBS) under the mentorship of Dr. Eduardo Vilar-Sanchez in the department of Clinical Cancer Prevention. Ana’s research focuses on characterizing the T-cell receptor (TCR) repertoires of Lynch Syndrome (LS) patients, the most common hereditary cancer syndrome, using highly innovative immunogenomics approaches. The long-term goal of her project is to identify TCR signatures predictive of the presence of cancer from the peripheral blood of these patients. Ana is also involved in a project cataloging and identifying the most frequently recurrent neoantigens present in LS precancers and tumors, with the purpose of developing novel immunoprevention strategies, involving an LS cancer vaccine. Since graduating with her Master’s degree, Ana has co-authored 2 peer-reviewed publications and published a first-author paper. She has given talks in different conferences and meetings that include the Cancer Genomics Consortium Meeting, where she was awarded the 1st place Trainee Award. Her long-term career is to work in the molecular diagnostics field and to help towards the advancement of early cancer detection technologies.
Oluwadara Coker, B.S., M.S.
Main focus: colorectal cancer, KRAS biology, cancer cell signaling networks, cancer therapeutics
Olu completed his dual B.S./M.S. degree in Bioinformatics from Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Cancer Biology Program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences where he is mentored by Dr. Scott Kopetz in the department of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology. His doctoral dissertation focuses on understanding the biology of oncogenic KRAS-G12C dependency in colorectal cancer. Utilizing clinically-relevant models and the first KRAS-G12C inhibitor in the clinic, AMG 510, Olu hopes to address the pre-clinical challenges that are often encountered when working with cell lines and mouse models. The long term goal of his project is to comprehensively understand the adaptive and acquired feedback mechanisms to KRAS-G12C inhibition in patients with colorectal cancer. Outside of the lab, Olu enjoys reading, learning about finance, and is active in his church community.
Rachel Dittmar, B.S.
Main focus: pancreatic cancer, extracellular vesicles, biomarkers
Rachel L. Dittmar, B.S. is a doctoral candidate and T32 pre-doctoral awardee at the MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Science (GSBS) completing her doctoral thesis research in Dr. Subrata Sen’s lab in the department of Translational Molecular Pathology. Dittmar’s research focuses on understanding how alterations in pancreatic cancer associated driver genes, including KRAS, GNAS, and TP53, affect extracellular vesicle content. The long term goal of this project is to use content ensconced in circulating extracellular vesicles to develop a body-fluid-based biomarker for early detection of pancreatic cancer and to discriminate which cystic pancreatic cancer precursor lesions will progress to pancreatic cancer. Dittmar, in collaboration with other members of the Sen lab, also plays a lead role in projects studying cell-free, circulating miRNAs, metabolites, and DNA as potential biomarkers for early detection of pancreatic cancer. Since graduating from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 2012, Dittmar has co-authored 13 peer reviewed publications, reviews, and book chapters. Additionally, since joining the GSBS in fall of 2015, Dittmar has been awarded the Sylvan Rodriguez Foundation Scholarship honoring George M. Stancel, the Marilyn and Frederick R. Lummis, Jr., M.D., Fellowship in the Biomedical Sciences, the Dr. John J. Kopchick Fellowship, and the Linda M. Wells GSBS Outreach Award. Outside of the lab, Dittmar enjoys giving back to her community as Vice President of the Outreach Program.
Jake Leighton, B.A., B.S.
Jake is a Ph.D. candidate and T32 pre-doctoral fellow in the Quantitative Sciences program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS). He is currently working in the lab of Dr. Nicholas Navin in the Department of Genetics, where his doctoral research work focuses on understanding early cancer development by identifying aneuploid initiating mutations in triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) contributing to tumor evolution. By determining specific point mutations precipitating important genomic transformations underlying initiation in TNBC, his work can illuminate their contribution to important early cancer developmental events, thereby inspiring dynamic basic science research, functional validation studies, and translational investigations of potential therapeutic targets to further advance the vanguard treatment of breast cancer. While completing degrees in physics, biochemistry, and philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin, he worked with Dr. George Shubeita utilizing optical tweezers to examine dynein molecular motor motility and later studied the effect of Hippo pathway dysregulation on pancreatic cancer development with Dr. Pei Wang at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Since joining GSBS in the Fall of 2016, he has been active in GSBS mentorship, graduate program development, and successfully published an impactful first author paper. When not in the lab, he enjoys playing sports, performing music, and volunteering in local hospitals and schools.
Vincent Bernard Pagan, Ph.D.
Mentor: Dr. Anirban Maitra
Dates of Fellowship: December 2018 thru November 2019
Antoneicka Harris, Ph.D.
Mentor: Dr. Lawrence Kwong
Dates of Fellowship: July 2018 thru November 2019
Justin Wong, Ph.D.
Mentor: Dr. Subrata Sen
Dates of Fellowship: December 2019 thru August 2020
Dates of Fellowship: September 2019 thru August 2020