The UF College of Medicine’s Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences Advanced Concentration in Cancer Biology, which was established by Dietmar W. Siemann, Ph.D., in 2015 and is now co-directed with Maria Zajac-Kaye, Ph.D., provides multidisciplinary doctoral training in cancer research ranging from basic to translational.
The mission of the cancer biology concentration is to train the next generation of cancer biologists to make significant contributions to basic and translational research in cancer prevention and diagnosis, cancer epidemiology, novel therapy discovery and cancer treatment.
Now the third-largest concentration in the biomedical sciences graduate program at UF, it’s the only concentration not directly associated with a single basic sciences department; instead, it draws mentors from multiple basic and clinical departments. The concentration currently boasts 27 UF Health Cancer Center faculty mentors and 23 Ph.D. students mentored by Cancer Center members from many disciplines, including molecular and cell biology, genetics and epigenetics, biochemistry, microbiology, pharmacology, anatomy, pathology, epidemiology, bioinformatics and immunology.
“The goal of the cancer biology concentration is to establish a vibrant academic program designed to provide the necessary interdisciplinary training in cancer research required of tomorrow’s scientist as they take on and solve the problems of cancer,” said Dietmar Siemann, Ph.D., founder and co-director of the cancer biology concentration.
This concentration expands beyond just the classroom and lab. Many of the cancer biology students are involved in pre-collegiate and undergraduate activities. Twelve of the current students are members of the Cancer Center education trainee committee, comprising of Ph.D., M.D-Ph.D. and post-doctoral students who assume leadership roles in promotion, marketing, and scholarly activities for pre-collegiate/undergraduate initiatives.
The UF Health Cancer Center Cancer Education and Training team have initiated a partnership with the Florida 4-H University program, which enables 14-to-18-year-olds to participate in educational workshops, explore career opportunities and lead community service activities. The education trainee committee organizes practical workshops for these 4-H University students to gain exposure to cancer research.
Another pre-collegiate activity that the committee is involved with is the UF Health Cancer Center science outreach program, which provides workshops and presentations on science, biotechnology, bioinformatics and career development at Florida schools. The goal of this program is to strengthen opportunities for pre-collegiate students to learn the basics of cancer and build a pipeline to the next generation of cancer researchers.
Graduate students from the cancer biology concentration also developed and lead an annual 11-lecture cancer research series based on the classic “Hallmarks of Cancer” for students in the UF Student Science Training Program, a summer research program for rising high school seniors.
Aside from pre-collegiate activities, the education trainee committee is also involved in undergraduate activities. This committee manages the recruitment and selection process for the UF Health Cancer Center University Scholars Program. They also organize a monthly seminar series for the scholars in the program.
Many of the cancer biology concentration students have been recognized and awarded for their accomplishments. Eight students have received UF Health Cancer Center pre-doctoral awards. The pre-doctoral awards program began in 2016 to recognize and support outstanding graduate students conducting innovative cancer research. The awardees work with mentors who are Cancer Center members with cancer-focused extramural funding.
“I truly appreciate everything the cancer biology concentration stands for and its dedication to the continued success of its current, previous and prospective students. I am grateful for the concentration directors and mentors who all took pride in training/educating the next generation scientist such as myself,” said Mam Mboge, a recent graduate of the concentration.
The first five students in this concentration have earned their Ph.D.s, with the most recent graduate finishing in June. These five students have accepted post-doctoral fellowships at places such as Berkeley, USC and Harvard.
“I might be biased, but the cancer biology concentration is the best. Both co-leaders have worked so hard to make this a safe yet challenging environment for us to grow into better scientists,” said recent graduate Vindhya Vijay.