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Emerging Technology & Talent

Young cancer researchers recognized at Vanderbilt-Ingram scientific retreat

November 30, 2023

The 24th annual Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Scientific Retreat focused on emerging technologies in research and celebrated the next generation of investigators.  

The guest speakers detailed initiatives about creating comprehensive reference maps for all human cells, exploring new frontiers for CAR T-cell therapies, and utilizing artificial intelligence to better understand protein structures and interactions. The Vanderbilt-Ingram postdoctoral scholar of the year and graduate student of the year were announced, and student researchers presented posters about their work. 

Cancer survivor and advocate Tasneem Tewogbola shared about overcoming the self-esteem issues that many women experience after undergoing mastectomies. Photo by Donn Jones.

The importance of the event was underscored in remarks from Tasneem Tewogbola, a cancer survivor, and from Ben Ho Park, MD, PhD, the Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology and director of Vanderbilt-Ingram. 

“Our mission statement has always been and continues to be alleviating cancer death and suffering through pioneering research — which is what this is really all about today — innovative, patient-centered care and evidence-based prevention, education and community initiatives,” Park said. 

Tewogbola is a writer, humanities scholar and performance artist. Diagnosed with breast cancer at age 43 in 2018, she initially balked when her doctor had scheduled her for a mammogram. She took her four daughters with her to the appointment, telling them it would be quick. 

“A few minutes became an hour, and my oldest daughter, who was then going on 16, texted me: ‘Mom what’s taking so long?’” Tewogbola said. “And I wasn’t completely sure . . . I came in for a simple mammogram, and I came out with an appointment for a breast biopsy.” 

Tewogbola spoke at length about the psychological adjustment of dealing with the loss of her breasts after undergoing a bilateral mastectomy.  Rather than undergo reconstructive surgery, she chose another option — “transforming my chest from the scene of an amputation to a canvas for self-discovery” with a tattoo, which she said is now her shield. 

Award Winners

Wenjun Wang, a PhD candidate working in the Cynthia Reinhart-King Laboratory, was named Graduate Student of the Year. She has published four first-author papers related to tumor growth and the role of matrix stiffening. 

24th VICC Annual Scientific Retreat on May 23, 2023. Photos by Donn Jones/Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Wenpeng Liu, PhD, was selected Postdoctoral Scholar of the Year. Working in the David Cortez Laboratory, his discoveries have answered long-standing questions in the field of DNA replication. His work has been published in Science, a highly respected journal, among others. 

A highlight of the annual retreat is the poster session, where young researchers outline their work on visual boards and then discuss it with established scientists, including a team of judges. The categories are basic science, population science and translational science. 

The judges selected Brad Davidson for the Overall Poster Award. First place citations went to Monica Bomber, PhD, Guochong Jia, PhD, MPH, and Taylor Sheehy. Second place citations went to Emily Berestesky, KayLee Steiner and Xiaopeng Sun. Third place citations went to Emily Green and Rachel Smith. 

The guest speakers at the retreat included Sarah Teichmann, FMedSci, FRS, PhD, who heads the Cellular Genetics program at the Wellcome Sanger Institute at University of Cambridge and is a co-founder of the Human Cell Atlas consortium. The other two guest speakers were Mohammed AlQuraishi, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Systems Biology at Columbia University, and Avery Posey Jr., PhD, assistant professor of Pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine.