Student Profile

Krishna Luitel

Veleka Iwuaba in lab
Krishna Luitel

Krishna Luitel
Cancer Biology Graduate Program
Mentor: Jerry Shay, Ph.D.
Hometown: Lalitpur, Nepal

I grew up watching the Dexter’s Laboratory cartoon which initially captured my interest in science, but my research interest grew out of my undergraduate and post undergraduate research experiences. My naïve view of science illustrated in my high school textbook changed as I got exposed to real science data. I started to learn more about research through classes, seminars, and research labs which finally helped me to decide to pursue my career in research.

UT Southwestern provides world class research opportunity for interested students in biomedical research to further their research interest. As I did my summer internship at UT Southwestern during my undergraduate year, I already knew what UT Southwestern has to offer for students to enhance their research ambitions and prepare them to become successful future scientists. UT Southwestern Graduate School not only provides training for students to get into academic research but also it provides opportunities for students to extend their studies and learn about alternative careers in science.

“UT Southwestern Graduate School not only provides training for students to get into academic research but also it provides opportunities for students to extend their studies and learn about alternative careers in science.”

I am in the Cancer Biology Program. The Cancer Biology Program during the first year is designed to provide basic understanding of cell, genetics, and molecular biology of cancer to students. Students learn about different aspects of cancers taught by the different faculty members who are specializing in specific areas of cancer. This platform helps student to choose the right cancer biology lab with a specialization that coincides with their research interest. The unique collaboration among faculties at Cancer Biology provides opportunities to combine both basic science and clinical research which not only opens the doors for discovery of news ideas and information about the cancer, but also provides unlimited opportunities for student to explore novel research.

My research project is to understand how IR brings changes in the tumor micro-environment resulting in phenotypic and molecular changes of benign lesions leading to malignant transformation. More than half of cancer patients are treated with ionizing radiation (IR) at some point during their treatment, and people are also exposed to radiation in hospitals and clinics to perform diagnostic imaging exam for appropriate care. IR is a very well known carcinogen, and its exposure is a major concern for long-term space travel as well. However, we still do not have enough information about how IR impacts the stromal cells surrounding the initiated tumor or tumor environment of benign lesions that may contribute to cancer promotion.

I love the program because it is designed in such a way that it focuses on helping students to achieve their research goal. The program consist of distinguished faculties specializing in different areas of biomedical research and unlimited collaboration opportunities available on campus makes science more reachable which helps to further student research ambition.

Stacy Yuan

Stacy Yuan in lab
Stacy Yuan

Stacy Yuan
Cancer Biology Graduate Program
Mentor: Sean Morrison, Ph.D. 
Hometown: Richardson, Texas
Awards/Fellowships: Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Predoctoral Fellowship (F30)

I always liked science when I was growing up, especially biology. But it wasn't until midway through college when I seriously became interested in scientific research. A few professors at my college, Pomona College, encouraged me to try out research in a lab, so I ended up joining the SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) program at UT Southwestern. I had a great experience working in a lab over that summer and had additional rewarding experiences conducting my senior thesis research at Pomona. I have a naturally inquisitive mind, so I enjoy asking questions and figuring out puzzles, which is a big part of what you do in scientific research. I think the most valuable aspect of science is the potential to discover and push boundaries.

“If you choose to come here, you will not only get very rigorous scientific training for your career, but you will also get to know a lot of the faculty.”

The quality of research conducted at UTSW is unparalleled. Many faculty members conduct thorough, impactful research and are really supportive of their students. The goal of my research is to find potential new therapies for melanoma, which is a cancer that arises from the pigment-producing cells in the skin. I am specifically interested in investigating ion channels and transporters in the context of melanoma. I hope to be able to identify a drug against these targets that can be ultimately taken into clinical trials to treat patients with melanoma.

I think UTSW is a great program because the institution is constantly growing. In recent years, we have recruited some of the best scientists and physicians in their respective fields, and many other faculty members have received prestigious awards and fellowships. If you choose to come here, you will not only get very rigorous scientific training for your career, but you will also get to know a lot of the faculty. One of my favorite things about this program is how involved faculty is in all of the graduate students, even if the students do not directly work in their labs.

Aswathi Mohan

Ashwathi Mohan in lab
Ashwathi Mohan

Ashwathi Mohan
Cancer Biology Graduate Program
Mentor: Gaudenz Danuser, Ph.D.
Hometown: San Antonio, Texas
Awards/Fellowships: NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA F30 Pre-doctoral MD/PhD Fellowship and  NIH Pharmacological Sciences Training Grant

My exposure to the sciences came at an early age since both my parents are biomedical researchers. I grew up reading drafts of their manuscripts and grants and became especially interested in my mom’s research on diabetes. Reading her work on the negative impact diabetes has on a person’s blood vessels and how that can lead to heart disease, I realized two big things that have shaped my career choice to pursue an MD/PhD: First, basic science research can provide almost immediate information regarding human disease that can be applied to patient care. And second, having both medical and research training can accelerate this process since, as a doctor, I’d be able to identify the gaps in medical knowledge by caring for patients, and as a researcher, I’d be able to design my research to specifically target those gaps.

I chose to come to UTSW for medical and graduate school primarily due to the uniquely vibrant research environment here. I found that the community is both highly ambitious but also highly collaborative. I think it’s an ideal research environment for students because it’s inspiring to be surrounded by such hard work and high standards but also nurturing to be with people who are excited to share their wisdom and resources within and between labs and even across departments.

“I think it’s an ideal research environment for students because it’s inspiring to be surrounded by such hard work and high standards but also nurturing to be with people who are excited to share their wisdom and resources within and between labs and even across departments.”

My research focus is to better understand how cancer cell interaction with the extracellular environment contributes to the development and progression of melanoma, a highly aggressive malignancy responsible for over 75% of all skin cancer deaths. Currently, most chemotherapies for melanoma target intracellular signaling abnormalities. By further understanding the hyperactivating melanoma mutation in the Rac1 protein, which coordinates intracellular and extracellular signaling, the goal of my project is to shed light on promising strategies for melanoma drug development that target mechanisms of cancer cell interaction with the surrounding environment.

The greatest asset of the UTSW Cancer Biology Program is definitely the research faculty. The spectrum of expertise at this institution in cancer and across basic science makes it one of the best places to be trained to pursue a career in cancer biology. Through the three years of my PhD, I’ve reached out to six labs within and outside the program for collaborations or to simply help me think about my project, and I’ve found all these ventures to be extremely valuable especially to my growth thinking about science critically. I also think the Cancer Biology Graduate Program is ideally designed in its balance of freedom for students to have maximum time to conduct research and structure in the form of course work, social and scientific retreats, and yearly student presentations. This balance is something I’d encourage all graduate students to look into before selecting their graduate program because I’ve found that it’s rare to find and critical for doing well in lab. I couldn’t have imagined a more supportive research community in which to pursue my PhD. As a student you are never wanting at this institution for resources or expertise; it’s all a few labs down the hall or, worst case scenario, across the bridge on South Campus.

.