Hands-On Cancer Research

Priyanka Grover in the lab.
June 19, 2019

Priyanka Grover’s pancreatic cancer research at UNC Charlotte is paving her way from North Carolina to Cambridge, Massachusetts. This month, just weeks after receiving her Ph.D. in biology, she heads to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in hopes of helping to create a more efficient drug discovery process to benefit cancer patients.

Named a 2019 Leader of Tomorrow in biotechnology, Grover is participating in the Institute’s GapSummit 2019, a student-operated biotechnology leadership forum designed to tackle challenges facing the bio-economy and solicit innovative solutions to address those challenges.

Grover is among team members brainstorming ideas to address weaknesses in biotechnology. This highly selective summit of only 100 people from around the world has Grover mixing with the best and brightest future and current leaders in biotechnology, including those from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). 

Grover’s team, comprising students from Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Cambridge universities, will consider how to create a more efficient drug discovery process, presenting its idea to venture capitalists and leaders in industry and academia. If her team wins, it will get funding to pursue its idea.

“I would like to go into equity research to push for more capital expenditures on biotech companies that focus on immunotherapy for oncology,” said Grover, whose specialty is molecular and cellular biology. “I believe this is where our biggest breakthrough is going to come for generations in regard to cancer research.”

Graduate researchers at UNC Charlotte are reaching crescendos in their academic careers thanks to an intimate research environment nurtured by talented faculty within the various academic colleges.

Grover is just one example. Nitika, a third-year graduate student also studying molecular and cellular biology, aims to eventually run her own lab, becoming an “awesome” principal investigator like her mentor, Andrew Truman, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. She’s already on her way through training other graduate students in CRISPR technology—the process of changing an organism’s DNA. She was the first UNC Charlotte student to successfully complete experiments using this technology, Truman said.

Then there’s Katherine Holtzman, whose research is inspired by a family friend who died from breast cancer. Her upcoming study of mice is to determine whether an anti-inflammatory drug can be combined with existing cancer treatments to more successfully treat the disease. Holtzman is conducting this study with Didier Dréau, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Students who choose UNC Charlotte embrace the intensive research opportunities the University’s labs offer. Projects receive support from a growing list of funders, including federal agencies such as the NIH and NSF. Faculty at this fast-growing research institution are motivated to be creative with resources, leading to an engaged and impactful experience for graduate students.

“Our student researchers are very much appreciated by the University’s principal investigators,” said Pinku Mukherjee, the Irwin Belk Endowed Professor of Cancer Research and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences. “It’s not unusual for students to have a substantial role on their mentors’ best research projects.”

Since 2011, Grover has worked alongside Mukherjee in her lab, while also coaching undergraduates who periodically work with her. Grover, who majored in international business at Virginia Commonwealth University and minored in biology, was led to UNC Charlotte by a family friend who was familiar with Mukherjee’s research in breast and pancreatic cancers. She joined Mukherjee’s lab as a volunteer and enjoyed the research so much that, in 2014, she applied and was accepted to the Ph.D. program in biological sciences. Her work centers on how the protein MUC-1, found on the surface of pancreatic cancer cells, plays a role in cancer signaling.

“People here really care about your future career, and they provide you with opportunities to not only do research, but also to develop yourself as a leader and a member of the graduate (student) community,” Grover said.

Grover is driven by her desire to solve complex puzzles. Pancreatic cancer, which is hard to detect early, is a particularly deadly puzzle that medical scientists are trying to solve. More than 56,000 people will be diagnosed with the cancer this year, and more than 45,000 will die, according to the American Cancer Society.

Following the summit at the Broad Institute, Grover plans to apply for an equity research fellowship with Goldman Sachs for medical doctors and research scientists. She is considering a career in biotech equity research, wanting to help health care and pharmaceutical companies explore the possibilities of clinical trials and other research initiatives that could benefit patients.

“It can take me many places, to be honest,” Grover said of her research at UNC Charlotte. “Whether I choose a postdoctoral fellowship, go into the biotechnology industry, or even enter the financial realm, I know what I’ve learned here will help me transition to many, many fields.”


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