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The Making of a Scientist

For most science majors, the presentation that Pat Brambert is set to deliver at the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research in Utah next month would be the highlight of a semester. For Brambert, it’s just a warm-up.

Brambert, a junior from Bloomingdale, has spent much of the last year working with Assistant Professor Stacey Raimondi on investigations into the genetic triggers that make cancer cells grow more aggressively. He was selected to present his findings at the annual NCUR meeting in late March, a showcase for the nation’s top undergraduate researchers.

But that’s just the first of two high-profile appointments Brambert has on his calendar for that week. After finishing his presentation in Utah, he will hustle back across country to offer his work at the prestigious American Association of Cancer Research conference in Chicago, a stage even more impressive than the NCUR conference.

“It’s a huge deal,” Raimondi said of the cancer-research conference. “If you’re somebody in the field, you go. It’s how you become known.”

If being selected to present at two conferences in one week is a remarkable double-honor, it’s also something of a logistical challenge. One afternoon last week, Brambert stopped by Raimondi’s office to ask his professor some questions—not about their work in the lab, but about how he would manage to get back to Chicago from Utah in time for his second conference. Was Brambert anxious about the prospect?

“I think I’ve got the jitters out of the way,” he said. “Now I’m just excited to talk about what we found.”

What Brambert is finding are clues to the molecular workings of breast cancer—clues that might eventually point toward ways of shutting down the most aggressive and invasive kinds of cancer. Brambert is helping to answer one of the central questions of Raimondi’s research: What genes and proteins trigger aggressive growth in cancer cells, turning less invasive cancers into more invasive ones?

The consequences could hardly be more crucial. The five-year survival rate for patients with localized breast cancer is 98 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. Once the cancer has metastasized, the survival rate drops to 23 percent. Finding the proteins that make cancers more invasive would be an important step in solving cancer’s deadly mysteries.

The research in Raimondi’s lab is part of an increasing number of studies that examine genetic pathways in cancer cells for information that could point toward new treatment strategies. Scientists know that aberrations in the way genes are spliced inside cancer cells affect the way DNA and RNA translate into proteins in those cells. One aberrantly spliced gene—called DNMT3B7—appears in almost every kind of cancer cell, but is not found in normal cells. Brambert has made 3B7 the focus of his work in Raimondi’s lab. He altered less aggressive cancer cells to express this protein, and found that they subsequently grew more quickly than cancer cells that had not been altered. Are genes like DNMT3B7 altering cellular signaling pathways in breast cancer—in effect, triggering tumor progression?

“I really want to answer these questions,” Brambert said. “It’s why you spend the long hours in the lab.”

Brambert came to Elmhurst intending to prepare for dentistry school. Then he took Raimondi’s cell biology class. Intrigued by the lab work, he found himself spending more and more time in the Schaible Science Center. When a spot opened up in Raimondi’s lab last year for an undergraduate researcher, she offered Brambert the opportunity. He seized it, and before long was setting his own research course.

“He comes to me with ideas that he wants to pursue,” Raimondi said. “That’s something you expect in graduate school, but you don’t often see it with undergraduates. That’s part of the maturing of a scientist.”

Now Brambert is aiming for graduate study in a research-based combined DDS/Ph.D. program, where he would like to do research into oral cancers.

“I’ve found out that I really like being in the lab,” Brambert said. “I never thought I’d have the chance to do this kind of research. But I’d tell anyone who was coming to Elmhurst to take advantage of the opportunity to do research. There are people doing some really cool projects.”

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