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Penn State Cancer Research Day focuses on cancer research career paths

“We can’t be here in person this year, but now everyone has a front-row seat,” said Kristin Eckert, Penn State Cancer Institute associate director for cancer research training and education coordination and professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, during her opening remarks at Penn State Cancer Institute’s third annual Cancer Research Day on Oct. 31. Eckert holds a doctorate in oncology.

Faculty, staff, trainees and students attended the virtual conference to present their research, learn about cancer research careers and discuss career development.

While the annual event certainly looked different from previous years, attendees experienced a full schedule with featured and guest speakers, trainee presentations, a poster session and a career panel that highlighted the breadth of cancer research in basic, clinical and translational science.

Researcher in lab analyzing specimens

Cancer researcher prepares samples for analysis 

Speakers offer practical advice

Featured speaker Dr. Douglas Lowy, principal deputy director of the National Cancer Institute, urged early career researchers to find satisfaction from any progress and challenge themselves.

“I have remained curious, and I embrace opportunities to advance research and versatility,” Lowy said. Along with his collaborator, John Schiller, Lowy played a large role in U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved human papillomavirus vaccines. Lowy also encouraged trainees to seek answers outside their disciplines. “Some of the best ideas I get are from reading literature in areas I’m not familiar with.”

Guest speaker Mohamed Hassanein, associate director and clinical assay lead in biologics at Pfizer, said that cancer research careers are like cancer itself. Hassanein holds a doctorate in molecular biology and genetics.

“Cancer is a very complex disease, and it’s not one molecule or one pathway that is the answer,” Hassanein said. He provided insight into his career that led him from academia to industry and remarked that despite the 2008 recession shaping his own career pathway, he remained resilient and continued seeking new opportunities. He insisted that early career researchers look outside of the lab for their strengths.

“Medical writing or being a good communicator could land you a job,” Hassanein said.

Trainees share research

Cancer Institute trainees from various Penn State campuses and education levels displayed their research through live Zoom presentations and a poster session via breakout rooms.

Those interested in viewing the poster sessions or watching trainee presentations should email event coordinator Tonya Krushinsky at

Career panel focuses on what matters

Dr. Valerie Brown, professor of pediatrics, was among nine cancer researchers who provided advice at the final session’s question-and-answer career panel. Topics included work-life balance and tips for finding and maximizing postdoctoral appointments.

“Always keep your eye on the prize, but the prize is not your career,” Brown said. “The prize is what we are doing. For all of us in cancer research, there’s always a patient behind what we do.”

In post-event evaluations, trainees expressed their appreciation for the perspectives and advice provided. Event organizers hope the event inspired faculty and trainees to establish and expand their cancer research careers.

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