It all started with an email in mid-November. I looked at this email for days trying to decide what to do. Needing guidance, I brought it up at my weekly meeting with my primary mentor, Dr. Ratna Vadlamudi. We it discussed at length and I made the decision to “go for it.”
The path I had chosen was to apply for selection as an American Association of Cancer Research- Early Career Hill Day delegate. Early Career Hill Day is an annual event that brings a group of AACR Associate Members to Washington, D.C., to advocate for robust, sustained and predictable funding for cancer research and biomedical science through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), on behalf of early-career cancer researchers.
For 2021, the event would be held virtually due to COVID-19. I reached out to several of my friends and colleagues for help and advice on my application and platform. My favorite and most relied upon “givers-of-advice,” outside of Dr. Vadlamudi, are Dr. Bill Clarke, Dr. Nicquet Blake, Dr. Alexander Pertsemlidis, Dr. David Cavazos, Dr. David Hill and my mom Dr. Patricia Altwegg.
From my friends at UT Health San Antonio, I was connected with Dr. Andrea Giuffrida, our Vice President of Research. Dr. Giuffrida served as an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow in the Office of Science Policy at the National Institutes of Health and is actively engaged in life science and biotechnology networks in the state, the U.S. and internationally. He gave me so much helpful advice about what to expect, how to tailor my application, and the most important part: how to streamline my thoughts into a cohesive direct purpose.
I also talked at great length with Dr. Hill, a forensic psychologist, who is an active advocate of science policy and has extensive experience in legislative advocacy at the state level as a board member of the Texas Psychological Association and a past president of the Capitol Area Psychological Association. He gave me great insight on the roles he fills in the community, our state, and our nation. My mom also has years of advocacy experience as Director of Title III grants for Strengthening Institutions, Title VIII grants for the Cooperative Education Program, and in her role at the Kansas Board of Regents as the Associate Director of Career-Technical Education.
From these brainstorming sessions, I developed my application alongside the suggestions and recommendations of Dr. Vadlamudi. I remember thinking what an exciting honor it would be to represent UT Health San Antonio, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology on the national stage!! In late January, I received the decision from the American Association of Cancer Research. I would be participating in my first American Association of Cancer Research- Early Career Hill Day!
From there it was a whirlwind of information, training sessions, and practice. We had our first team meetings during the “Great Texas Snowpocalypse” in February. I had to relocate to a friend’s house who had power to log into the virtual meeting! The virtual training was exhilarating because I got to meet pre and post docs from across the U.S. I had the opportunity to ask my fellow delegates about their pre to postdoctoral transitions, their personal platform for science advocacy, any advice they could give, and their experiences from previous Early Career Hill Days. In total there were 28 delegates that would be conducting over 60 meetings on February 25, 2021. In addition to receiving advocacy training, we had the opportunity to hear from NCI/NIH representatives on the current state of biomedical research funding within the United States. After the general meet and greet, we broke into our teams to rehearse for the event. I was paired with experienced Early Career Hill Day veterans Dr. Kimiko Krieger from Baylor College of Medicine and Melody Tan a predoctoral candidate from Rice University.
On the morning of Feb. 25 our first meeting was with the office of Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and his Head Legislative Aide, Patrick Michaels. In our conversation, Mr. Michaels shared with us that since Senator Cornyn had joined the Senate funding for NIH had risen 33 percent and the senator would be introducing new bills to support young students in STEM and STEAM. Overall, the office was very supportive of cancer research initiatives. Mr. Michaels asked to keep in touch with us and for more information about the AACR and as a source of information for the future. With the first meeting being such a success we moved on to the second meeting with the office of Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) and her Lead Council Jeb Johnson. Again, we were met with an incredibly supportive office with a long history of support for cancer research; specifically breast cancer.
After a brief break for lunch we met with the office of Representative Chip Roy (R-TX) and his Head Legislative Aide Sabrina Hancock. Ms. Hancock shared with us that Congressman Roy was a cancer survivor and was highly supportive of the importance of research. She was very open to any information we had to pass along about our experiences as early career cancer researchers. We moved directly into our meeting with the office of Representative Al Green (D-TX) and his staffer Amanda Ganter. We discussed Representative Green’s support of the NIH and NCI and his goal to help change people’s lives.
The office requested more follow up material from AACR, the NIH and the NCI about upcoming proposals and initiatives, which we were happy to pass on to the AACR Advocacy Team. Our last meeting of the day was with the office of a co-sponsor of the RISE Act, Representative Elizabeth (Lizzie) Pannill-Fletcher (D-TX). This was a particularly important meeting for me because the Research Investment to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act was introduced to authorize nearly $25 billion in support to U.S. researchers who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For me, this was THE most important meeting because not only was my F31 funding impacted by COVID, but many of my friends and colleagues had to work from home because their facilities and laboratories closed. Across the U.S., many scientists were furloughed or lost their jobs.
One of my close friends in bioscience device sales recalled feeling basically heartbroken because their manufacturing facility could not produce enough pipette tips to keep up with the demand from the COVID labs. COVID affected so many, and Representative Fletcher was part of a piece of legislation to get us all back on our feet again. Representative Fletcher’s Head Legislative Aide, Ann-Marie Boisseau commented that our (research scientists) work gives her hope for the future. This office is a consistent supporter of NIH and NCI and stated that they will continue to do so.
After our last meeting concluded, I realized I had been talking about cancer research for about seven hours. I was still energized from all of the positive interactions throughout the day, but physically and mentally I was completely worn out. Overall, it was an incredible learning experience for me and a wonderful opportunity to connect with scientists and science policy advocates across the U.S.
I would like to sincerely thank the AACR for this incredible opportunity and the offices of Senator Cornyn, Representative Jackson-Lee, Representative Roy, Representative Green, and Representative Elizabeth Pannill-Fletcher for their time and support of early career scientists, cancer research initiatives, and biomedical sciences.
About The Author
Kristin works on developing novel small molecule inhibitors targeting proto-oncogenic PELP1 in both therapy resistant and triple negative breast cancers Breast cancer (BCa) is the most common malignancy in women, the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths after lung cancer. The majority of BCa (70%) is estrogen receptor positive (ER+). However, most patients develop therapy-resistance (TR-BC), frequently progressing to metastases. In addition to ER+ BCa, approximately 15% of BCa diagnoses are categorized as triple negative BCa (TNBC) because they do not express the canonical molecular drivers: ER, progesterone receptor (PR), and HER2. TNBC is associated with a younger age at diagnosis (<40 years), advanced stage at diagnosis, predominance in African American or Hispanic ethnicity, and a more aggressive clinical course. Overall, TNBC has a higher propensity to metastasize, worse prognosis, and contributes a disproportional share of the total mortality from BCa. TNBC is nonresponsive to many of the effective drugs targeting ER/PR or HER2. Her doctoral work is geared toward development of novel effective therapies for women with TR-BC and TNBC with the overarching goal of improving patient survivorship.