Pursuing a calling in cancer research: Q&A with CREATE alumna and Ph.D. student Jesenia Perez

Jesenia PerezFunded in part by Minnesota Masonic Charities, the Cancer Research, Education, and Training Experience (CREATE) provides talented undergraduate students from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico with valuable hands-on learning and mentorship in cancer research. Jesenia Perez, an alumna of the 2018 CREATE cohort and Florida International University, is now pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. Here she shares more about her CREATE experience and her passion for creating a healthier future.

What was your CREATE experience like?

It was absolutely amazing, and is what drove me to cancer research. I initially learned about CREATE through the U’s Life Sciences Summer Undergraduate Program, which I enrolled in in 2018. At first, I didn’t know what area of research I wanted to pursue. But through CREATE, I was really inspired by the weekly seminars on different types of cancer, and by weekly seminars where everyone in the program presented their research. This enabled me to learn about cancer immunotherapy, viruses and cancer, and more. 

I was also able to study colon cancer in Dr. Tim Starr’s lab. I worked with mice, and got hands-on experience in cell culturing, assays, cloning, and more. From there, many avenues of cancer research opened for me. Dr. Starr was incredibly engaging. He let me lead discussions, asked questions to explore why something was happening, and sought input from me on what experiments to do. He also wanted to make sure that everything we did was clinically relevant: I sat in on multiple meetings with him and other doctors to discuss the broader impacts of cancer research and how patients could directly benefit from it.

What was the most eye-opening aspect of CREATE? What was the most rewarding?

The most eye-opening part was the fact that I could do this research and it didn’t feel like a job. As an undergraduate, I worked in a lab and it was hard to juggle classes and lab work at the same time. I didn’t get the full exposure I wanted. With CREATE, I was in the lab every day, and sometimes every day of the week.

One of the most rewarding aspects was to see the direct connection between my research and how it could reach patients. CREATE sparked my interest in translational research. When you think of cancer research, it starts out very general. But then it starts getting really specific when you look at different types of cancer, and even more specific when you look at differences in genetics or responses to treatment across people who have the same cancer. That made it really interesting, and made me want to pursue it further. 

What are you currently focused on as a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota?

I just finished my first year in the University’s microbiology, immunology, and cancer biology graduate program. 

I’m conducting research focused on ovarian cancer and proteomics in Dr. Stefani Thomas’s lab. We’re interested in the protein landscape of ovarian cancer. One of the things I’m focused on is why some women with high grade serous ovarian cancer, specifically those with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, relapse after being treated with PARP inhibitors. We’re trying to figure out the exact mechanisms of action of PARP inhibitors in women with these mutations, and are using mass spectrometry to get a detailed look at which proteins change in response to PARP inhibitors and, ultimately, other genes that might be involved in drug resistance. In addition, we are studying the lesser-known off target effects that PARP inhibitors have on cancer cells that might also contribute to drug resistance.

What has been your most interesting course so far in the Ph.D. program? 

One of my favorites was a cancer translational research class. Different M.D.s and Ph.D.s came in who work directly with patients and I was able to get the perspective of the oncologist. For our midterm exam, we were given a clinical trial to analyze and we had to write about every aspect of the trial—from what it means for the patients who are enrolled, to the inner-workings of getting the trial up and running. There were a lot of details we don’t consider when we think of clinical trials—it was really eye-opening. 

What I also found really interesting was how easy it is to get siloed. This class showed me that even though what I’m doing in cancer research is very specific, there are broader impacts to patients.

What are your career goals?

While I love lab research, I've also been thinking a lot about juggling some policy work because one of my biggest passions is accessibility for patients.

For example, in the majority of clinical trials, the demographics are geared towards Caucasians, and to middle or upper income people who have access to resources. Clinical trials need to be more representative of the overall population, and there needs to be a push so that more people have access.

Another big issue is the cost of chemotherapy. While there are a lot of new drugs coming out, there hasn’t been enough emphasis on cost. Chemotherapy is incredibly expensive, but not everyone has health insurance, and even if they do, the coverage can be very limited. We’re making a lot of great discoveries about new medications, but how are they reaching us if the majority of people can’t afford them? 

What does it mean to you to know that CREATE was made possible in part by donor support? 

It means a lot. I’m very grateful for the CREATE program. It’s what got me into cancer research. It was also what inspired me to pursue my graduate program here at the U. 

Without the CREATE program, I wouldn’t have known about the great research going on here in Minneapolis. I love the collaboration and the opportunities for networking. One of the biggest things I noticed with other graduate programs I applied to at different institutions was a feeling of superiority, and an unwillingness to collaborate. Investigators here are very open to new ideas, especially from students. I feel like I can comfortably speak to any principal investigator here and they will take me seriously. An environment that is this unique, offered here at the U, is what allows for great discovery.