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Research mentorship through minority program

July 18, 2018


When summer comes along, many college students will take a break from their studies. It’s usually a time to wind down from a difficult semester of hard work, but not for Colorado native and Johns Hopkins University sophomore, Maraake Taddese. “I always had a liking towards science as a child, and I kind of knew I wanted to be a physician, but I didn’t know what kind of doctor I wanted to be or what I wanted to explore about science,” says Maraake. This summer, she has the opportunity to explore her passion at The University of Colorado Cancer Center.

As high school graduation came closer, the search for a good university depended on opportunities in research and biomedical science. When Maraake got to Johns Hopkins she knew she wanted to pursue a degree in molecular and cellular biology, and she began interning with the Johns Hopkins Hospital. In the pancreatic cancer lab, she processed pancreatic fluid and blood samples and assessed related diseases. This experience was a good start toward future cancer research, but she needed more independence.

When the 19-year-old aspiring cancer researcher was looking for summer internships she stumbled upon a program called STEP-UP, otherwise known as Short-Term Research Experience Program for Underrepresented Persons. STEP-UP is a summer research training program, supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIDDK), which targets minority students who have a passion for scientific research.

Maraake’s passion is pancreatic cancer research. With her previous experience working in Early Detection of Pancreatic Cancer Laboratory at Johns Hopkins Hospital with Dr. Michael Goggins, she looked for a research mentor who specializes in pancreatic cancer. “I asked Dr. Goggins about any GI doctors or people who work on GI research at CU Anschutz that he knew of, and he mentioned Dr. (Wells) Messersmith because they used to work together at Hopkins,” says Maraake. “That reaffirmed that I wanted to not only work in pancreatic cancer, but work with a researcher that I knew was going to enable me to explore more about it.”

Wells Messersmith, MD, is the associate director of translational research and heads up CU School of Medicine’s Division of Medical Oncology. He specializes in gastrointestinal cancers including pancreatic cancer.

Maraake’s main concern is researching a particular demographic. “Pancreatic cancer is especially apparent in African Americans for various reasons, like socioeconomic factors. I want to look at how we can make sure that our research and our treatments are geared towards everyone. I want to see how we can mitigate and alleviate ways that African Americans are affected by pancreatic cancer,” says Maraake.

To become a better researcher and gain valuable knowledge, Maraake is looking at cancer from all angles, including biological and cultural factors. Understanding these factors, along with the physiological and biological components of cancer, is a vital stepping-stone towards her career in pancreatic cancer research.

Dr. Messersmith says, “We are always ready to welcome new students with a passion for cancer research. Pancreatic cancer is a very challenging disease, so we need tenacious researchers to ask and answer questions we have not even thought of yet.”

Joining the University of Colorado Cancer Center for summer research is an exciting privilege that few students get to experience. Working with pancreas cancer laboratory models, Maraake has been testing novel cancer drugs obtained in a collaboration with the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the NIH.  She will be traveling to the NIH in August to present her work to the STEP-UP program.
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