Q&A with Mai Tanaka
Mai Tanaka is a Ph.D. student in the Cancer Biology Concentration. She is currently working as a graduate research assistant in Dr. Dietmar Siemann’s lab in the department of radiation oncology at the UF College of Medicine.
Mai served as the president of our UFHCC Education Committee (one-year term) and is still actively involved in the committee while continuing her Ph.D. studies. She just obtained her M.P.H., which she completed while she was studying for her Ph.D. She was selected as a UFHCC 2019 Predoctoral Awardee and a UFHCC 2020 Poster Winner.
Mai and two other international graduate students from the Cancer Biology Concentration, Yang Feng (mentor: Olga Guryanova, M.D., Ph.D.) and Kartika Venugopal (mentor: Olga Guryanova, M.D., Ph.D.), received Outstanding Achievement Awards from the University of Florida:
She also received the 2019 University of Florida International Center Certificate of Excellence, was awarded the 2020 Alec Courtelis Award and placed third in the 2020 University 3MT competition.
What has your experience as an international student at UF been like?
This is my fifth year at the University of Florida, and I’ve been able to build many lifelong friendships with people from all over the world. UF celebrates diversity and promotes inclusivity, so being an international student here is seamless. No one treats you differently, so I feel “at home.”
There are ups and downs of being an international student, that are outside of the university’s control. Questions like: “Will I be able to find a job?” “Will an employer sponsor me?” or “Will I be able to come back to the U.S. after an international travel?”, often come into my mind when there are new political restrictions put in place for international students and workers.
The UF International Office and the UF Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences are amazing resources and help out with the majority of the visa paperwork and administrative work. I’m really appreciative of them, because without them, I would be lost in piles of paperwork and legal language.
Where are you originally from, and what influenced you to come to UF?
I’m mixed — with a Bangladeshi father and a Japanese mother. With that being said, I was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. I came to the U.S. as an international student in 2010 when I was 15 years old. I attended high school in Indianapolis, Indiana, and lived with host families during my high school years. In 2013, I graduated with a bilingual International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. Looking back, I often think to myself, “What was I thinking, leaving ‘home’ when I’m only 15?” Nonetheless, I’m extremely fortunate and satisfied with my decision!
I became interested in biology and chemistry during my high school years (I had amazing biology and chemistry teachers). My biology teacher told me about a competitive three-day conference for high school students interested in biomedical research. I applied and was selected as one of the 50 high school students in the state of Indiana to attend the Molecular Medicine in Action research conference hosted by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. This experience was eye-opening: I was exposed to various fields of biomedical research, including cancer research.
After finishing high school, I decided to move somewhere warmer. Naturally, Florida was on my radar. I decided to go to a small liberal arts honor’s college at the New College of Florida. There, I worked in a plant biology lab, studying the development of the early endosperm in maize kernels. I was also undergraduate research assistant in an inorganic chemistry lab, designing and characterizing potential ruthenium anticancer complexes. At this lab, I completed my undergraduate honors thesis and graduated in three years with a B.A. in Biochemistry. These lab experiences have allowed me to learn numerous research techniques and develop laboratory skills that I continue to employ.
As I was completing my undergraduate thesis project, I realized that developing effective anticancer therapies required a greater understanding of cellular and molecular biology. I decided to apply to Ph.D. programs in molecular and cell biology, as well as chemical biology. UF’s Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences (formerly known as the Interdisciplinary Program) was appealing to me, because students have the flexibility of doing rotations in different research fields and departments. When I visited UF for the interview weekend, I also found the students to be friendly, helpful and well-connected with each other. These internal and external factors prompted me to come to UF, and my time here has been incredible.
What has been the most beneficial part of being an international student at UF? Most challenging?
The most rewarding part of being an international student at UF has been the opportunity to be trained in a collaborative, interdisciplinary setting. Not only have I received quality education and superior research training, but I have also been able to work with people from different departments, colleges and centers. UF fosters and promotes collaborative environment, and everyone here is always willing to help. Regardless of my background, I feel accepted and welcomed to be a part of The Gator Nation!
The most challenging part is being far away from my parents. I try my best to see my parents every year, whether that’s me traveling back to Japan or them coming to see me in the U.S. With the ongoing pandemic, that has changed and made international travels difficult. I haven’t been able to see my family for almost a year and a half. With that being said, my mom and I have become experts at figuring out a 12/13-hour time difference to make video calls and text messages!
How did you originally become involved with the UF Health Cancer Center?
My mentor, Dr. Dietmar Siemann, is the co-leader for the Cancer Biology Concentration in the Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences and the associate director for education and training at the UF Health Cancer Center. I first met him in Fall 2016 as a first-year graduate student. His research interests piqued my interest, so I met with him to inquire about doing a six-weeks rotation in his lab. After rotating in the lab, I officially joined the lab in Spring 2017.
As the associate director for education and training, Dr. Siemann leads the Cancer Research Training and Education Coordination Core, which seeks to provide opportunities in basic science, population science and clinical/translational research. I became involved in the UF Health Cancer Center-led educational programs, including the University Scholars Program, 4-H University, Cancer Research Conference for Science Teachers and Cancer Research Symposium for High School Students.
How have your leadership roles at the UF Health Cancer Center impacted your time at UF?
Being a part of the UFHCC Education Committee has given me the confidence to pursue other leadership roles at UF. After I served my time as the chair of the Education Committee, I transitioned as the community service co-chair for the UF College of Medicine Graduate Student Organization (COM-GSO). I have judged secondary school science fairs since 2017, led ‘hands-on” science activities at the Cade Museum and Chiles Elementary School and partnered with the Letters to a Pre-Scientist to facilitate connections with middle and high school students from low-income communities. Currently, I am a career development co-chair for the COM-GSO to promote and facilitate professional development for our graduate students. Last fall, we’ve virtually hosted six speakers; this spring, we will be virtually hosting seven speakers from various career backgrounds in intellectual property law, industry, medical affairs, nonprofit organization and government.
What do the honors and awards you've received while at the University of Florida mean to you?
In 2019, you were named a UFHCC Predoctoral Awardee and received a UF International Center Certificate of Excellence; In 2020, you were selected as a UFHCC Poster Winner at the Virtual Research Symposium and were awarded the Alex Courtelis Award.
I’m humbled to have received these honors and awards, but truthfully, I’m still in disbelief. Everyone at the UF Health Cancer Center is committed to innovative research and discovery to impact the lives of patients with cancer. I’m passionate about conducting clinically relevant research. In the Siemann lab, I study the role of a key signaling molecule that promotes cancer metastasis, which is a process where cancer cells spread from the primary site to distant organs, and accounts for approximately 90% of cancer-related deaths.
Outside of my research interests, I also recognize that there are disparities in health literacy, health care and health outcomes. I have been involved in community outreach and engagement to make STEM more accessible, increase science literacy among youth and adolescents, and provide research opportunities for our next generation scientists. I couldn’t have achieved these honors and awards without the support of all my mentors and colleagues. Dr. Siemann and the members of the Siemann lab have been instrumental in training me to be an independent researcher; the UFHCC Education Committee members have been the drivers to establish and sustain the UFHCC-University Scholars Program; and UF Graduate School in Biomedical Sciences has provided me with a platform to engage with the community and my peers for the trainees’ professional and personal development. So to me, these honors and awards highlight the importance of commitment and collaboration.