Graduate school commencement launches tomorrow’s scientific leaders

June 7, 2015 | by Robin Heffler

graduate school commencement
Members of the 2015 graduating class from the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences pose with their mentors and teachers.

Updated June 15, 2015.

As a teenager living in Duarte, California, James Finlay organized 50 to 60 donors for a blood drive to benefit City of Hope, meeting his need for a community-service project on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout.

“That was my first major interaction with City of Hope,” he said. “I had very little sense of the research that goes on here.”

Finlay never imagined that two decades later he would be a student with not only an inside view of – but also a role in – the investigations conducted at City of Hope’s Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences. The renowned program trains a handful of select graduate students in the fields of chemical, molecular and cellular biology, as well as bioinformatics and genetics.

At 4 p.m. on Friday, June 12, Finlay was one of 12 graduate students who received Doctor of Philosophy degrees at the school’s 17th commencement ceremony, held in the Rose Garden on City of Hope’s main campus. Celebrating along with the graduates and their families were leaders of the school, City of Hope and the scientific community.

The keynote address was delivered by Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology and the founding director of the Beckman Institute at the California Institute of Technology. Gray is acclaimed for his research on a wide range of fundamental problems in inorganic chemistry, biochemistry and biophysics.

Training that leads to significant career positions

Now the graduates will follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, who have landed fellowships and staff positions in prominent universities, the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute, and major biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

Jessica Christenson, for example, another graduate and a former student in the lab of Susan Kane, professor emeritus of cancer biology, will be a postdoctoral fellow in pathology at the University of Colorado.

Erin Denny, also a mentee of Kane, has accepted a postdoctoral position as a licensing associate in the business development department at Amgen.

And, Maggie Bobbin will soon start a postdoctoral fellowship in pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital.  She was mentored by John J. Rossi, Ph.D., the Morgan & Helen Chu Dean's Chair of the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences and chair and professor of molecular and cellular biology, who said Bobbin helped develop new technologies for delivering therapies to treat HIV infection during her training.

Rossi said that in bridging basic science and clinical medicine, the graduate program offers an experience that similar programs can’t match. “The close interactions among our academic and clinical faculty create a culture of cooperation that is unique for biomedical graduate programs,” he said. That culture, Rossi explained, provides “ample opportunities for our students to learn about the clinical challenges of practicing physicians and to make unique and important research contributions.”

Diversity in gender, ethnicity and scientific backgrounds

The graduating classes have become more diverse over time. Today there are more women than men in the ethnically and nationally diverse graduate program, Rossi said, reflecting the increase in women with undergraduate science degrees.

Some students bring previous graduate experience to the program as well.

graduate school student James Finley
“When I would go the cafeteria or would lock up my bicycle, I saw cancer patients all the time, including little kids in wheelchairs going for treatment,” said former graduate student (now graduate) James Finlay said. “It puts a human face on the research, and really, really motivates you to want to do good research.”

Finlay entered with a doctor of veterinary medicine degree, and served as an on-call veterinarian in City of Hope’s Division of Comparative Medicine’s (DCM) Animal Resource Center while earning his biological sciences doctorate. Enrolled in both the Ph.D. program and a residency in laboratory animal medicine, he had two mentors.

In the lab of Carlotta Glackin, Ph.D., associate professor of neurosciences, Finlay’s research focused on reducing the expression of a protein that, when activated, is responsible for allowing cancer cells to become mobile and spread to other parts of the body.

In the lab of Richard Ermel, D.V.M., M.P.V.M., Ph.D., director of and professor in the DCM’s biomedical and translational research programs, Finlay’s work included ways to reduce the number of animals needed for research, and the effectiveness and side effects of substances used to create a sterile environment during studies.

Soon, Finlay will begin a position as a clinical veterinarian in the Department of Animal Resources at USC, with which he collaborated during his residency. He will work with researchers to make sure animals are healthy and well-cared for, and that their treatment meets government standards.

During his graduate training at City of Hope, Finlay said, he thrived in the school’s close-knit environment, and was constantly reminded of why he wanted to work in his chosen field. “When I would go the cafeteria or would lock up my bicycle, I saw cancer patients all the time, including little kids in wheelchairs going for treatment,” he said. “It puts a human face on the research, and really, really motivates you to want to do good research.”

The complete list of this year’s graduates include:

  • Maggie Bobbin
  • Jackson Champer
  • Chu-Ting (Isaac) Cheng
  • Jessica Christenson
  • Erin Denny
  • James Finlay
  • Kurt Jenkins
  • Monika Polewski
  • Laura Smith
  • Nadiah Wan Mohd Ghazalli
  • Tianyi Wang
  • Chunyue Weng

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More about individual graduates

Jackson Champer conducted his Ph.D. thesis research in the laboratory of Markus Kalkum, Ph.D., on the development of mycosis vaccines. Mycoses are invasive fungal infections that commonly occur in immunosuppressed cancer patients and are the No. 1 obstacle to the success of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Champer has co-authored two scientific publications and is currently submitting another manuscript on his research. He was awarded the Helen and Morgan Chu Fellowship in 2014 and is now seeking a postdoctoral position in the field of his new passion, insect vector-borne diseases.

Chun-Ting (Isaac) Cheng received his bachelor's and master's degrees in clinical laboratory sciences and medical biotechnology at National Taiwan University. He conducted his Ph.D. thesis research at City of Hope in the laboratory of David Ann, Ph.D., and is a recipient of the H.N. & Frances C. Berger Foundation Fellowship. Cheng has co-authored four published studies and one first-author study. He is currently working on another first-author and another co-author paper. His dissertation was focusing on studying how cancer cells adapt to metabolic stress, identifying potential therapeutic targets and prognostic markers in breast cancer. In the future, he would like to become an academic faculty member and discover more potential targets for combating cancer.

Kurt Jenkins graduated with a bachelor's degree in cellular and molecular biology from the University of Michigan. He studied type 2 diabetes at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, before starting graduate school at City of Hope in 2009. He soon joined the laboratory of John C. Williams, Ph.D., focusing on the modification of current anti-cancer therapies in order to make them safer for patients. "We can now proudly say that ours is the only institute in the world that has a tumor-selective immunotherapy pro-drug," Jenkins said. "In other words, we have a pro-drug that is inactive as it travels through the body, and the drug becomes activated once it reaches the tumor.  We hope that this approach will abolish side effects and toxicities seen with anti-cancer therapies."

Monika Polewski conducted her Ph.D. thesis research in the laboratory of Karen Aboody, M.D., where she elucidated the role of a cystine/glutamate antiporter in promoting glioma growth and chemoresistance. After being awarded a three-year pre-doctoral training fellowship from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, she further expanded her research to understand the mechanisms of neuroprotection in neural stem cells under injury and oxidative stress. Working in Aboody’s translational laboratory, Polewski understood the need to facilitate the bench-to-bedside continuum and so completed the year-long Clinical Investigation Training Program (CITP), in which she was exposed to the principles and practices used in planning and executing human clinical trials. Polewski also took formal business and management courses at the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences to obtain a Certificate in Bioscience Management. Her training and experiences have contributed to her obtaining a senior study director position at Western Preclinical, an academic contract research organization, which is being formed at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona. In her new position, she will continue to promote and facilitate collaborative preclinical/ translational research with other research institutions, pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

Laura Smith arrived at City of Hope to work as a research associate eight years ago after driving cross country from Philadelphia. Writes Sawasti Chatterjee, Ph.D., in whose lab Smith worked: "Over the past eight years, Laura has made important, well-recognized contributions to the gene therapy and gene editing fields. As an RA, she discovered a family of viruses from human hematopoietic stem cells, which are now being used in labs across the world. More recently, she has made very significant, game-changing contributions to the field of gene editing, which you will be hearing about over the coming year. Over the past eight years, Laura has presented her findings at international meetings and her scientific accomplishments recognized by the numerous awards she has received from the American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy. With the support of the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation and the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, today she achieves the culmination of her scientific journey thus far. I have no doubt that this is only the first part of an exciting and illustrious career ahead for Laura."

Chunye Weng says of the doctoral studies at City of Hope: "I realized that the past six years is not only the training for research, but also a valuable experience in my life. Research is always filled with ups and downs, but the skills, courage and friends gained can make life much better. I once suffered so much that I couldn't sleep well because of the failure of some critical experiments, but meanwhile, I learned how to perform experiments as accurately and as soon as possible, and how to solve problems under stress. The help from friends is always a good encouragement during difficulties. Standing at the end of the journey of my Ph.D., the best gift I get is a better self." Weng now heads to San Francisco for a master's degree in computer science.

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