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Q&A with Cancer Biology PhD student Ana Bolivar

June 13, 2022
Tracey Barnett/ MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School

Photo of Cancer Biology PhD student Ana Bolivar

How did you hear about the Women in Immune Science (WISE) award?

“As part of my PhD project, I perform T cell receptor sequencing from patient tissue and peripheral blood samples, using an assay offered by Adaptive Biotechnologies. Once I started analyzing this data, I realized they also offer a wide variety of resources within their website, including an educational portion called SEQdiscovery, which has webinars, blogs, events, technical documents, videos, and a section dedicated to awards. So, when I realized that I fulfilled the requirements to apply to their Women in Immune Science (WISE) award, I went for it!”    

How has the WISE award impacted your research?

“My project requires a relatively large number of samples to be sequenced because there is machine learning involved, so the award has definitely helped us reach a larger number of samples sequenced.”

 Could you explain your research?

“My project focuses on Lynch syndrome (LS). Patients with this hereditary disease have higher risk of developing cancer at young ages compared to the general population. Because of this, they have to undergo invasive screening, including colonoscopies, upper endoscopies and tissue biopsies in a yearly basis. LS patients develop these tumors because they have an inherited mutation in one of four genes that are in charge of repairing DNA errors. When this repair system stops functioning, they accumulate a large number of mutations, which leads to cancer development. These cancerous cells produce certain proteins called neoantigens that are recognized as foreign by the patient’s immune system. Consequently, there is high infiltration of immune cells in these tumors.

“As part of the Vilar Lab, we are assessing the likelihood of these neoantigens to be used as cancer vaccines. However, my project focuses specifically on understanding the characteristics and biology of the T-cells that recognize these neoantigens, which is a rather understudied area in these population of patients. I study the potential of these T-cells’ receptors (TCRs) to be used as a blood-based cancer detection method. To do this I am comparing the TCR repertoires from peripheral blood of LS patients that have survived cancer, with those of LS patients who have never developed cancer. My goal is to identify a group of TCRs specific only to the group of survivors, and determine if they can be used to detect the presence of cancer at an early stage.”

Why did you pick the GSBS for your research education?

“I obtained my masters in Diagnostic Genetics from MD Anderson’s School of Health Professions. During this time, I became interested in learning more about cancer biology and pursuing a PhD degree in this area. Since I was already working at MDA, I was aware of the research being done by many of the amazing professors that are affiliated to GSBS as well as the many great resources that the school offers for the students. The latter, plus its location in the Texas Medical Center were the main reasons why I chose GSBS to pursue my PhD.”

What advice would you give to fellow students who are applying for awards/grants? Any tips?

“I would recommend them to consider applying not only to the scholarships and awards offered by the GSBS, but to also look for awards associated to their own area of research. Biotechnology companies tend to offer awards in several instances to researchers that use their products, so make sure to check the resources offered by any of the companies you use kits, reagents, or machines from.

As for grant writing, I recommend students to ask their peers that are not too familiar with their research if they can prove read the proposal. That way they can make sure that the story they are telling is not hard to understand by someone who is reading about it for the first time (which tends to be the case for the majority of reviewers).”

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you would like to add?

“One more thing I would like to say is that one other reason why we should feel very encouraged to apply for as many awards as possible during our PhDs, is because many of these awards not only provide us with money or resources for our research, and they look great in our resumes, but in many cases they also help us gain online visibility at a professional level. Especially in times when social media has such a big impact during the job application process, having different posts about your work and your academic success in social media has a very positive impact when the time comes for you to get a job.”  


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