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UNC junior Molly DeCristo attended her first international scientific meeting, but not just as a participant. The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) honored her poster with a rosette, judging it as “highly rated,” among the top 2.5 percent of those submitted.

Molly has worked in the lab of Adrienne Cox, PhD, associate professor of radiation oncology, since January 2011. The lab is studying how a protein called Ect2 is involved in ovarian cancer. Molly is working with Lauren Parker, a graduate student in Dr. Cox’s lab, and her AACR poster is based on their collaboration.

But the AACR rosette is not the first time Molly’s work has been recognized. Last year, when Molly was a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow working with Lauren Parker, she was the recepient of a William and Ida Taylor Honors Fellowship from the UNC Office of Undergraduate Research and the UNC Honors program. Molly has also been recognized as a Carolina Research Scholar.

How she got interested in science and in cancer research

I remember first being fascinated with nature and trees and bugs and things like that. Then, in middle school, I had an awesome science teacher. It was then that I became fascinated with the human body and the medical side of science.

My mom is a breast cancer survivor, and I lost both grandfathers to cancer.

That personal aspect has driven my interest in wanting to study and hopefully make some progress in fighting cancer.

How she became involved with this line of research

When I was looking for a lab my sophomore year at UNC, I was hoping to get involved in one doing cancer research. Other than that I didn’t have a specific sub-field that I wanted to pursue. I was so lucky that Lauren read my application to a program called CURE. I interviewed with Lauren and then with another lab doing basic biologic research, but I was more interested in what Lauren was doing because it’s more translational.

About the AACR meeting

It was overwhelming in a good way- so many opportunities, ideas I could explore, and it was really cool to be able to jump from one talk to another on different topics I’m interested in, like the role of the immune system in cancer or cancer stem cells. These are things I’ve been really interested in but haven’t had a lot of time to pursue. Attending the meeting gave me a great opportunity to hear from people who are pioneers in these fields and to hear about their research.

What she took away from the meeting

First of all I realized again how little I know. In the last year I have learned so much in the Cox lab, but my research has focused on a small sub-field of cancer research and cancer is so complicated. You have to look at problems from all sides to get the whole picture and to really have an understanding that will allow you to target therapies successfully. I was also struck again by the importance of team science and the collaboration of so many of these people who talked about how they were working with people from different fields across medicine, like pooling their resources and their knowledge so they’re able to address really complex questions.

How she will use what she learned at the meeting in her research

When I presented my poster a lot of people came by who were familiar with the subject and asked some really interesting questions, so it will definitely help me think about the direction of my project. Just being able to meet people and talk with people will certainly also help me network in the future.

This experience made me refocus on the importance of trying to translate our basic scientific findings in the lab to the clinic, a process discussed in a lot of the talks.

Talking with everyone made me think of a lot of different questions about our project that I hadn’t thought of before that are relevant to our attempts to do translational research.