The long labors of post-doctoral fellows, laboratory technicians and graduate students earn them excellent mentoring, training and the chance to seek answers to some of the most exciting questions in cancer research
by Eva Emerson
Graduate student Ryan Irvine says he spent the better part of last year "fishing." Dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, Irvine jumps up to sketch out what he means on the chalkboard in his shared office at USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. His drawings and animated talk reveal that what he calls "fishing" was in fact a labor-intensive, exhaustive search for proteins that may play a role in prostate cancer. Irvine, who works in the laboratory of molecular biologist Gerhard Coetzee, Ph.D., hopes to land two big ones for his angling efforts - first his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology, then a university faculty position.
At USC/Norris, post-doctoral fellows, laboratory technicians and graduate students like Irvine are essential components of the cancer research program. Their long hours in the laboratory only rarely pay off in accolades, grant money or even mention in news stories about their findings. What their labor does earn them is excellent mentoring, training and the chance to study some of the most exciting questions in cancer research. If they are lucky, they might even come up with a few answers.
"The students fuse the entire investigative effort taking place in the lab," says Cancer Center Director Peter Jones, Ph.D. "They bring their own brand of excitement to finding new ways to prevent cancer and developing better treatments."
Two of the most difficult decisions for students are choosing a professor to work with and what kind of project to take on. Irvine was attracted to Coetzee's laboratory, in part, because he wanted to learn more molecular biology techniques - the kind that people in Coetzee's laboratory have mastered.
But he spent a year in Coetzee's lab before starting his studies. "You have to be very happy where you are," he says. Irvine found a good fit with Coetzee, who offered him an "exciting project that I could complete in four years," which is the average time it takes to finish the advanced studies.
Irvine is intrigued by the idea developed by Coetzee and others at USC/Norris that many genes, when altered, may work in concert to predispose someone to prostate cancer. So far, Irvine has screened three million potential proteins to hook the few he is after.
Also researching prostate cancer are post-docs Nick Makridakis, Ph.D., and Tony Highshaw, M.D., along with seven other students, technicians and fellows who do much of the hands-on work in the laboratory of Juergen Reichardt, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.
"Put it this way: Without them, nothing would get done," Reichardt says.
When Makridakis began graduate school, "I thought the project was the most important factor in deciding which lab to choose," he says. But he realized that the relationship with his mentor was even more critical.
"Juergen has pushed me to be an independent investigator. This experience has let me develop. Now, I feel secure as a scientist," Makridakis says.
Makridakis finished his doctoral thesis last summer. He is putting it - and a pile of other co-authored publications - forward as a solid entree to a scientific career.
Reichardt notes that while teaching is an important part of the process, so is knowing when to leave students and post-docs alone. "As a teacher, you try to balance between micro-management and the sink-or-swim approach," he says.
Highshaw was two years into a surgery residency at LAC+USC Medical Center when he came to Reichardt's laboratory. Unlike Irvine and Makridakis, Highshaw sought out a research project on prostate cancer, since he plans to train as a urologist. Highshaw hopes that the time spent in the laboratory will allow him to reach his longtime goal of becoming a physician/scientist.
All three agree that what makes their work possible is the alliance among USC/Norris scientists. "One of the best things about studying at USC is getting to work with professors from different backgrounds. It is more interdisciplinary, so you can ask questions from other sources that influence your genetics work," Makridakis says. "That is key because there is no way to answer all the questions we have about prostate cancer with molecular methods alone."
Emphasizes Highshaw: "To be successful, you need a collaborative effort."