PDS REx Program 2020 Seminar Series Highlights

The Research Experience (REx) seminar series offers multiple opportunities for in-depth research in a range of advanced science disciplines, and access to professional expertise not typically available until college and post-graduate studies. For REx participants, in-person (and this year, virtual) dialogue with working scientists include sessions with PDS alumni at the forefront of their respective research fields.

"In preparation for these sessions, REx students take deep dives into the peer-reviewed work of the scheduled speaker to gain insights into and a preview of the experiments and results that exemplify the speaker's work," US Science and REx faculty Dr. Kelley Bethoney shared. 

This year's virtual REx seminar series has featured some impressive guests and is highly anticipated by the students, who particularly appreciate the peeks into top lab spaces at universities and organizations across the country and the interactive Q&A opportunities the sessions provide. 

Allison Welsh '01, Ph.D., Senior Director, Provider Strategy & Patient Experience at Thrive Earlier Detection

Topic: Clinical research and development of liquid biopsies

Dr. Alley Welsh shared her professional journey as a scientist, which has led her to her current work on CancerSEEK at Thrive. She explained how she was initially inspired to study cancer by her younger sister, Betsy '04, who was diagnosed with Hodgkins' disease during her junior year at PDS. When Betsy was diagnosed, Alley pivoted her studies toward science and began volunteering in the Cancer Center at Dartmouth College. She has focused on pursuing cancer studies ever since. 

During the session, she explained the influential study she read after grad school that strongly impacted and directed her career in the field. The study essentially traced the evolution of a cancer tumor via DNA sequencing, and Welsh was so intrigued by the paper that she cold-contacted Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who published the study, seeking an opportunity to work in the lab.

Welsh's efforts were successful as she went on to complete her post-doctoral fellowship at Cold Spring Harbor Lab, followed by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, between 2011-2013. During that time, she focused on circulating tumor cell (CTC) biology and NGS-based (next-generation-sequencing) approaches while studying single-cell genomics in metastatic prostate and breast cancer. Welsh then worked at Foundation Medicine leading CTC research efforts, working on multiple levels to improve the utility of liquid biopsies in the clinical setting and seeking to advance education around the unique challenges they pose.

Welsh currently works as Senior Director, Provider Strategy & Patient Experience at Thrive Earlier Detection, a company whose ultimate mission is to further develop liquid biopsy blood-based technology to detect traces of cancer in advance of symptoms and diagnosis. The company is developing a blood test, known as CancerSEEK, which combines cutting-edge liquid biopsy technology with a machine learning engine. The test is designed to be integrated into routine medical care, along with existing cancer screening tools, to help in the advanced detection of cancer threats for both healthy and diagnosed cancer patients. Such a test would mark a tremendous breakthrough in the fight against cancer. Welsh's current role takes a step out of the lab, primarily focusing on the strategies to design support systems and services so that physicians and their patients can widely have access to the test. "I am driven by a passion for human connection, innovation, imagination and sharing in a profound mission," Welsh concluded.

Christina Twyman-Saint Victor P '33, MD, Bristol Myers Squibb, Princeton, NJ

Topic: Oncological Research

Dr. Christina Twyman-Saint Victor is a physician, trained as a gastroenterologist, working as a Clinical Trial Physician for Bristol Myers Squibb since 2019. She received her Medical Degree and completed her residency at Johns Hopkins University before completing a GI Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. She also achieved a Masters of Science in Translational Research while at PENN and transitioned to the faculty at PENN in 2016 with dual appointments as a professor in the Department of Medicine and the Department of Radiation Oncology.

Dr. Twyman-Saint Victor titled her presentation, "Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good," in large part because of a personal anecdote from her early days at PENN. She explained that a major reason why she chose the fellowship at PENN was because of the person who was positioned to be her mentor, but she found out in her opening days as a fellow that "the person who would not be named" was leaving for a new position. After a brief panic attack, she was comforted by PENN Physician Scientist Ben Stanger because he introduced her to her new mentor, Andy Minn, and it was a proverbial "match made in heaven." Twyman-Saint Victor noted, "The morale of the story is that, even if the best plans don't work, it is still okay. Mentors are everywhere and it is okay to ask for help because you never know who will be able to make a major difference in your life and career."  

Dr. Twyman-Saint Victor presented a number of slides to students illustrating different stages of lung cancer on CT scans, explaining the differences in each visual while also explaining the process that she took with her colleagues in analyzing and treating the lung cancer during a clinical trial. She also detailed the typical process of clinical trials in oncology research, including the three phases of testing that are required when seeking FDA approval for a drug or treatment.

She detailed an important mice trial in which she explored the use of PD1/PDL1 antibodies in treating melanoma. In order to move forward with the trial, she needed to convince her mentor in particular, among the five members of her research committee. She explained the importance of how she took a calculated risk and "followed her gut feeling" in presenting to and ultimately persuading members of the committee of the validity of the trial. The result of her study was a major breakthrough that revolutionized the field. She concluded with a piece of advice to students, "follow your heart but don't forget to listen to your mind on occasion too."

Tania Schoennagel '86, Ph.D., Research Scientist, Dept. of Geography and Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), University of Colorado, Boulder, CO

Topic: Ecological effects of wildfire and insect outbreaks

Inspired by a life-long love for the outdoors, Dr. Tania Schoennagel became interested in ecology, and specifically fire ecology, after completing her studies in history at Dartmouth College. Her curiosity with wildfires and their effects led her to graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she earned two master's degrees, in Geography and Conservation Biology, and then a Ph.D. in Ecology. She currently works as a Wildfire Scientist for INSTAAR focusing on when, why and how wildfires burn as well as the overall impact they have on society.

In her current role as a wildfire scientist, Dr. Schoennagel explained that she constantly seeks to connect the science to society by speaking to broader audiences. She has testified in Congress to legislators in response to ongoing problems with wildfires in the Western United States. She has also sought a broader audience via publications, interviews on radio and television shows and meeting with filmmakers to discuss the importance of climate change impacts on wildfire.

Dr. Schoennagel's session focused on recent trends in wildfire and strategies for adaptation in the United States after an unprecedented rise in wildfires in 2020, particularly on the west coast. She noted that five of the six largest wildfires in California history occurred during 2020 alone, and that similar results came from Colorado and Oregon. She attributes the distinct increase in area burned in the U.S. by wildfires since 2000 to global warming and presented more statistics to support that claim, including an increase in human ignitions and more dense forests due to proliferating smaller plants. Also, contrary to popular belief, non-forests make up the majority of what has burned the most in the West. 

She concluded by offering three strategies for adapting to wildfires in the U.S.: strong policies are needed to turn the corner on climate change; new, adaptive approaches are needed to manage increasing wildfire risk and costs; better building, thinning and burning approaches will help communities and ecosystems adapt to wildfire as the climate continues to change. 

Alumni Presenters Reflect on PDS

Both Dr. Welsh and Dr. Schoennagel also shared reflections on their time as PDS students, including their perspective on the unique opportunity current students have in the REx program.

"PDS had the biggest impact on my life and I often look back fondly on my memories from there. To this day, it was my favorite school experience. I wish I'd had a program like REx when I was there because it is such a great opportunity to explore scientific interests at the highest level at an early age," Dr. Welsh reflected.

"It's great to expose students to different paths through science as well as different flavors of science that scientists specialize in because there are myriad avenues to pursue and contribute in the field," Dr. Schoennagel added.

For more on the REx program, including a list of internships and internship acceptances of REx students since 2018, go here in the STEAM program section under the pds.org Academics tab.

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