Meet The Researcher: Kristin A. Altwegg Speaks About Her NIH F31 Predoctoral Fellowship And Her Passion For Cancer Research
1) Your name, program, mentor name.
Kristin A. Altwegg, M.S., Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Ph.D. in Integrated Biomedical Sciences Program, Cancer Biology Discipline in the lab of Dr. Ratna K. Vadlamudi, Ph.D., Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology
2) Tell me the story of when you realized you were passionate about science.
Oh wow! This is hard to sum up. “In the beginning…” <Joking> I have loved science since I can remember. My mother was a collegiate professor with a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, and my father was a farmer/rancher with a Baccalaureate in Agronomy. I helped my father work with sheep, cattle, and horses; and learned very early the fundamentals of animal husbandry and veterinary care. Dad also taught me when and why we plant certain crops in certain fields, why crops need rain, and the purpose of fertilizer.
You see, my dad is also a scientist, he taught me everything he knew about the interconnectedness of weather patterns, plants and animals. My mother taught me how to read and think critically about what I was learning and how my actions shaped my path in life. Both my parents are pilots, so I was exposed to avionics and aviation and developed a love of flying too. In high school, my biology teacher, Mr. Tim Block was the first memory I have of an instructor who didn’t just make you memorize a textbook; he asked you applied questions (like my parents did). I also performed my first dissections under his careful guidance. It was the first time I remember being truly challenged in school.
I will never forget Mr. Block and the lessons I learned in his class, because I still utilize them. Years later at Kansas State University under the mentorship of Dr. J. Scott Smith, Ph.D. I earned my B.S. and M.S. in Food Science and Industry. I was dedicated to understanding how the food we grew on the farm went through manufacturing and ended on tables across the globe helping to feed the world. Through the course of my education at KSU I came across Food Toxicology and it was love at first class. Dr. John A. Pickrell, D.V.M., Ph.D., the course instructor, was a collaborator with my thesis mentor, Dr. Smith and they tailored my Master of Science degree around detection and diagnostics of mycotoxins in Kansas field corn. Together they cultivated my interest in toxins and carcinogens in food. Keeping in line with my passion for food science I attended University of Texas at Austin pursuing my second Baccalaureate in Nutritional Science. There I met Drs. David Cavazos, Ph.D. and Laura Lashinger, Ph.D., both of whom remain close friends and mentors. I became a student researcher under the direction of Dr. Lashinger, and it was that experience that firmly cemented my desire to pursue a career in cancer research. At UT Austin was where I was finally able to assemble my life in a direct path from 1) lessons on the farm into 2) food science and food toxicology into 3) nutritional science and diet-gene interactions and finally reach 4) cancer biology.
3) Please tell me about yourself, why did you pick UT Health San Antonio, and your program.
I prefer to work in teams or groups with everyone contributing to the success of the whole. I picked UT Health San Antonio because of the collaborative atmosphere and the more one-on-one mentorship I observed in the PIs. I also jumped at the opportunity to be affiliated with the MD Anderson/Mays Cancer Center. I knew from my previous education experiences I wanted a hands-on mentor who took an active role in my education. As far as the program, I only applied to institutions with a Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences specifically for the cancer biology discipline. As a non-traditional student I approached my doctoral training knowing precisely what I wanted and the kind of mentor I needed to get there.
At UT Health San Antonio I found the perfect combination in Dr. Vadlamudi, my dissertation committee, and the invaluable personal and professional friendships I have made. Plus I have my CB Family. I have stayed in touch with my fellow CB students during COVID via Facebook Messenger, texts, and emails. Now that restrictions are lifting, we have been able to get together and share in the camaraderie of our discipline. CB Crew for Life!!!
4) Tell me about your research. Why are you passionate about your research topic? How did you first become interested in it?
The focus of my doctoral work is characterization and optimization of small molecule inhibitors targeting oncogenes that contribute to therapy resistant and triple negative breast cancers. I also contribute to projects focused on understanding the role of hormonal signaling in breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancer progression, and developing working hypotheses on utilizing metabolomics and endocrinology in developing cancer therapeutics. I am also very passionate about the development of early ovarian cancer diagnostics and prevention interventions. Everyone knows someone who has had an experience with cancer. I want to utilize my training toward becoming a contributor to decreasing cancer incidence and increasing patient survival outcomes.
5) What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?
My research topic is important due to the sheer number of patients diagnosed with a breast or gynecologic cancer. Approximately 1 in 8 women in the US will receive a breast cancer diagnosis. Of those, the majority can be easily treated but will eventually progress into something less easily treated and more concerning. My dissertation work is focused on developing new therapeutics for advanced breast cancers. I am also committed to discovering new diagnostic methods and prevention interventions directed toward detecting these cancers early which will directly improve treatment outcomes and patient survivorship.
6) Have you won any awards or are you apart of any organizations/student clubs that you are passionate about?
In December of 2019, I was awarded the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Associate Member Scholar Award at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Consortium for my abstract submission showcasing my dissertation work on development and characterization of a first-in-class small molecule inhibitor for treating advanced breast cancer. I was also awarded the 2020 AACR Scholar-in-Training Award at the Virtual AACR Symposium for my abstract submission further detailing the characterization my inhibitor. As a result of these accomplishments I was invited by AACR to apply for the AACR- Early Career Hill Day. Early Career Hill Day is an opportunity for a select group of early career cancer researchers to speak with our Senators and Representatives in Washington DC about the importance of continued and sustained funding for cancer research initiatives. In 2021, I was selected to participate in the Virtual Early Career Hill Day along with 28 other early career cancer scientists from across the United States. It was so exciting, and I was able to make a lot of new friendships and professional connections. Recently, I was also awarded 3rd place at the 2021 Virtual Mays Cancer Center Retreat in the predoctoral category for my oral presentation detailing my work on characterizing the utility of the small molecule inhibitor in treating therapy-resistant breast cancer.
I am dedicated to serving my institution by being the student representative on the Graduate School Curriculum Committee. For me this is incredibly rewarding because I am able to follow in the leadership footsteps of my mother and also contribute to bringing the curriculum concerns of students to the committee. I have learned a great deal from my interactions with the Curriculum Committee and have a new understanding and appreciation for cooperation and compromise. I also serve as a representative on the GSBS Student Council for one year as the Cancer Biology Representative and for two consecutive years as the Curriculum Committee Representative. I truly enjoy collaborating and communicating with my peers for the benefit of the students and the success of our program. I also participate in student recruitment activities and new student orientations. I find it personally rewarding to observe the students enter the program and watch them grow, develop, and succeed.
7) What do you like most about being at UT Health San Antonio or your program?
I think if I had to pick one thing that made UT Health San Antonio stand out it would be the open collaborations between PIs at this institution. One of the highlights of my time here has been working with our Gynecologic Oncology Team and the first Gynecologic Oncology Fellow who is required to do one year of bench research during her fellowship training. Having exposure to the perspectives of surgeons and their expertise and training in medicine has helped me identify new gaps in knowledge and new avenues to contribute to cancer patient survivorship and treatment outcomes. It is an opportunity I do not take lightly and will never forget.
8) Tell me more about your NIH F31 award.
I had originally written and was awarded both the institutional TL-1 and the CPRIT, I declined the TL-1 to accept the CPRIT fellowship. To write the F31, I worked closely with Dr. Vadlamudi and Jessica Perry, Manager of Research Operations, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. With the combined grant writing experience of Dr. Vadlamudi and Ms. Perry, I had manageable realistic goals, working outlines, and timelines to completion. COVID hit soon after I submitted, and I remember stalking the eRA Commons website for any sort of activity. When my scores were first posted I was convinced it was a mistake, I had to go get Dr. Vadlamudi to confirm I was seeing things correctly! Being ranked in the 3rd percentile felt unreal. Then it was another waiting game through the presidential election and COVID before I finally received the notice of award. It was this issue of delayed funding that was one of the primary platforms for my science advocacy at Early Career Hill Day. My F31 is now active, and I have come off the CPRIT funding. The great thing is, I am not a financial burden to my PI and the CPRIT spot I had filled is now open for another student at this institution!!
9) What do you like to do outside of graduate school?
Outside of grad school I enjoy road and trail running. On the weekends I enjoy going hiking, camping, and kayaking with my friends. Reading books has always been a great pleasure of mine. I also volunteer with Texas Cattle Dog Rescue fostering Heelers (a type of cattle dog) and getting them adopted into their “furever” homes. I have worked with the rescue since 2019 when I lost my own 13-year-old blue heeler, Deuce, to canine osteosarcoma.
10) What’s next?
In the short term, I will be finishing up the experiments in my dissertation proposal, writing the dissertation manuscript, submitting several manuscripts for publication, and applying for post-doc positions. I also have plans to continue with science advocacy. My anticipated graduation is May of 2022 which is approaching far more quickly than I feel prepared for!