May 10, 2019

Undergraduate cancer researcher earns UW Carbone award

Madison, Wis. — When University of Wisconsin−Madison sophomore Rebecca Schmitz first came to campus, she knew she wanted to major in something related to science and probably attend medical school when she graduated.

“I wasn’t super sure what I wanted to do,” Schmitz said. “I have a lot of interests, so I figured I’d get into college, test the waters and see.”

It was at a meeting with an academic adviser her freshman year that she started to get a clearer picture. The adviser asked her if she had considered doing research in a UW lab.

“I didn’t know I could do research — I thought that was for professors and graduate students,” Schmitz said.

Schmitz applied for the WISCIENCE Entering Research program, which helps students without prior research experience find research labs and mentors, and guides them through a summer of conducting and presenting their projects. She began working in the lab of biomedical engineer Melissa Skala, PhD, a UW Carbone Cancer Center member and investigator with the Morgridge Institute for Research. Her experiences in Skala’s lab have helped solidify her career goals. She now plans to apply for MD/PhD programs and hopes to focus her training in cancer research and care.

“I still want to be in the medical field and hopefully treating patients, but now that I’ve discovered research, I’m really excited about it,” Schmitz said. “I think being able to do research alongside medicine would be really fulfilling.”

Many undergraduate students would like to work in research labs. However, finding a mentor who has resources to fund the project and compensate the student for time in the lab can be difficult. In 2014, J. Emory Morris, who earned his doctorate in cancer biology in 1966 at UW-Madison and is passionate about supporting and inspiring the next generation of cancer researchers, established the John Emory Morris Undergraduate Research Award to fund a student’s summer research project in a UW Carbone member's lab. The award, $5,000 in total, helps offset the costs of conducting research and provides the student a stipend.

Schmitz was recently named the recipient of the 2019 award.

“This grant allows me to work in the lab as my full-time summer job, which means I can fully immerse myself in the project,” Schmitz said.

Over the summer, Schmitz will continue a project she has been developing with Skala and Alex Walsh, PhD, an assistant scientist in Skala’s lab. She is asking if the common lab model organism, zebrafish, can be used to develop personalized treatment plans for cancer patients. Though other predictive models are also in development, including ones that Skala and UW Carbone oncologist Dusty Deming, MD, have collaborated on, Schmitz views a potential zebrafish model as adding to, not replacing, other methods.

Schmitz will take cultured cancer cell lines with known drug resistances, inject them into zebrafish where the cancer cells can grow and then treat the animals with anti-cancer drugs. Then, she will use microscopy to monitor how the cells are responding.

"We can use multiphoton microscopy to measure different metabolites in the cancer cells, which clues us into how the cells’ metabolism is changing in response to treatment," Schmitz said. "The good thing about the metabolism measurements is they happen a lot more quickly than you would see, say, the tumor shrinking."

And because their goal is to be able to use this model to inform patient care, the sooner they can determine if a drug is working or not, the sooner they can provide patients with the best treatment plan.

Skala is thrilled that her trainee received the Morris Award, calling Schmitz one of the most talented undergraduates she has worked with.

"With Rebecca, things just click. She has an intrinsic understanding of the scientific process and a remarkable intuition and curiosity for evidence-based research," Skala said. "Her research project will help us understand the advantages and limitations of zebrafish as a potential diagnostic tool for developing patient-specific treatment plans."

Previous winners of the Morris Award include Louise Saraspe (UW Carbone faculty mentor Dr. Krishanu Saha), Kayla Rasmussen (Drs. Paul Sondel and Alexander Rakhmilevich), Alexander Houdek (Dr. Richard Anderson) and Eddie Liu (Dr. Mark Burkard).