Ask Keri Schadler, a graduate research assistant in experimental pediatrics at MD Anderson, to describe her work, and an infectious grin spreads over her face.
“I love it,” she says. The fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in cancer biology at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences is immersed in a study of the signaling protein Delta-like Ligand 4 and its role in vasculogenesis in. In lay terms, Schadler, 26, hopes to determine if this protein can be used to treat a rare form of pediatric bone cancer by blocking the development of blood vessels in tumors, essentially starving them to death.
Schadler is one of approximately 550 students working on advanced degrees this year at the GSBS, located in MD Anderson’s George and Cynthia Mitchell Basic Sciences Research Building. A collaboration of MD Anderson and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the GSBS boasts a faculty of almost 600 and attracts students from around the world, awarding master’s and doctoral degrees in 21 established areas of study from biostatistics to virology. The GSBS also offers an interdisciplinary training program that allows students to customize course work to individual career goals.
Funded by a translational grant, Schadler works in the laboratory of her mentor, Eugenie Kleinerman, M.D., head of the institution’s Division of Pediatrics. Twice a month she follows Peter Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and a specialist in osteosarcoma, on his clinical rounds at the Children’s Cancer Hospital at MD Anderson. It’s there that Schadler finds validation for the past eight years of study and motivation for those still to come.
“Seeing sick kids provides the inspiration to get right back in the lab,” she says. “To do the research and to be exposed to the patient population we care about is a unique experience for a graduate student. That’s part of why I came to MD Anderson.”
Indeed, like Schadler, graduate students at MD Anderson enjoy a unique learning environment that pairs basic science training with clinical experience. Students work alongside renowned researchers and clinicians and observe firsthand as research findings move out of the lab to directly benefit patients. In fact, more than 360 MD Anderson faculty members provide instruction and mentoring at the GSBS.
Extracurricular activities such as off-campus scientific meetings and seminars are essential to the GSBS experience. These events provide young researchers the opportunity to network and develop their careers outside the lab. They also help students better understand their field of research and enhance their credibility to future employers.
Travel and lodging expenses, however, added to the cost of lab supplies and other necessities for research, can be prohibitive to students who must work on limited budgets. GSBS students rely on stipends, grants awarded to their advisers and/or limited funds available from federal training grants and/or philanthropy. The GSBS posts a number of supplemental travel awards, scholarships and fellowships for which students may apply. Competition is fierce, especially among international students, who represent a significant proportion of the GSBS student population. State and federal funds are restricted and frequently available only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
Raymond N. DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., provost and executive vice president of MD Anderson, created the Graduate Education Committee in 2007 to help recruit top-tier graduate students and ensure a rigorous and productive training environment. Following the GEC’s analysis, institutional stipends for domestic students now cover the first two years of study rather than the first nine months, says Stephanie S. Watowich, Ph.D., associate professor of immunology and vice chair of the GEC. Other committee recommendations include supplemental funds for graduate programs at MD Anderson, awards for exceptional faculty educators and incentives for faculty involvement in graduate training.
MD Anderson has set a philanthropic goal to supplement funding for graduate students who choose to train at the institution. Endowment funds would allow graduate students to participate in enrichment opportunities such as national and international scientific meetings and workshops, an annual research retreat and educational and career development workshops. Further, the monies would greatly enhance the institution’s ability to attract the best and brightest domestic and international graduate students and to strengthen the caliber of their training environment, says Watowich.
“Philanthropy is enormously helpful in attracting new students and recognizing excellent work. It gives students the opportunity to do what they couldn’t otherwise,” says Watowich, who directs the immunology graduate program at MD Anderson.
The benefits are reflected every day in students like Schadler, whose eyes light up as she talks about science that “really matters.”
“There’s nothing better than teaching somebody and watching that person grow,” says Watowich, “particularly as you see a promising student progress into an accomplished cancer researcher.”