When the University of Vermont announced last week that Professor Jason Stumpff’s molecular physiology and biophysics lab had made a discovery that could lead to new treatments for hard-to-treat cancers, two UVM alumnae took special satisfaction from the news. Lisa Wood '18, now a PhD student at the University of Colorado Anschutz School of Medicine, and Carolyn Marquis '19, who continues her work at the Stumpff lab, each made significant contributions to a paper published in the journal Nature Communications.
Wood says she practically grew up in the UVM Medical Center—her mom, Marie Wood, is an oncologist there.
“I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist. As I got involved in research, I began to realize there were people behind the practitioners who had to design the treatments. Eventually I decided to get into scientific research.”
Wood joined the lab shortly after Stumpff received a $450,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation to study proteins that could lead to treatments for triple-negative breast cancer. It’s an especially aggressive form of the disease commonly treated by general chemotherapy, which kills healthy cells along with cancerous ones. She got first-hand experience in the satisfactions and frustrations of basic scientific research.
“At first there were tons of negative data and it could be discouraging. Jason helped me understand that this was science in action—there are going to be a lot of dead ends along with the breakthroughs.”
With the frustrations came opportunities. Wood received a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), a program that pays undergraduates to pursue summer research on campus. Her work in the Stumpff lab led to her senior honors thesis.
Carolyn Marquis ’20 grew up in Nashua, N.H. and was attracted by UVM’s medical campus and strong science programs. Like Wood, she discovered opportunities to engage in meaningful research as an undergraduate, working as a SURF student after the summer of her sophomore year.
The Stumpff lab became a sort of second home. Marquis credits her mentor for teaching her the importance of taking a collaborative approach to research.
“Jason initiated a monthly journal club where we discussed our research with physicians at UVM, technicians from BioTek (a local company that makes research equipment), and patients themselves, women who had survived breast cancer,” she said. “Receiving feedback from these individuals gave me a broader perspective on the project, and it reinforced that the work we do in the lab has real potential to help people.”
The Nature Communications paper was based on Marquis’ senior honors thesis and subsequent work she completed in the Stumpff lab after graduating, and she is listed as first author, a rare honor for an undergraduate student.
“First author identifies the investigator who really drove the project,” Stumpff explained. “Carolyn also completed important experiments for a related project that was published in Nature a few weeks ago. She is a co-author on that study, which was a collaboration between six labs in five different countries.”
The two women are on separate trajectories in the medical field—Wood sees herself as a chief scientific officer or CEO at a pharmaceutical company. Marquis is leaning towards medical school, but wants to incorporate research into her work as a clinician. Still, their career arcs point in the same general direction.
“I remind myself all the time that the end goal is savings lives,” Wood says.