While Aiola Stoja Payne was volunteering as an emergency medicine technician (EMT), she learned about new substance that was just being implemented in emergency medicine. She was taught that this substance was a powder that you put directly on the wound site and was more helpful than just gauze alone to help with bleeding.
“A few days later, in my molecular biology class, the professor brought up blood coagulation and how chitin-interestingly one of the main proteins in crustacean exoskeletons-promoted blood coagulation and was in fact being used clinically in emergency medicine,” she said. “That was when I realized I wanted to go into research. I think I switched to my biotechnology major something like the next week or so because I was just so excited at how research was able to make everything come full circle in saving patient’s lives.”
After graduating from James Madison University, she worked in a variety of fields– from passenger service at a Japanese airline, an EMT, then to working at an IT help desk. She explained that these experiences have taught her fundamental life lessons.
“I decided to choose UT Health San Antonio and particularly the Integrated Biomedical Sciences because I found it was the ideal program to be able to mesh all the different skills that I have to really leverage my potential.”
She explained there are many students that have come into the program with a vast array of past experiences where they learned valuable skills that have shaped them into really great research scientists.
“I wanted a place that I can use the skills that I learned by working with people in different cultures, healthcare, and troubleshooting, to be able to move research forward. Not many programs are diverse enough or flexible enough to be able to do that,” she said.
Today, Stoja Payne is a second-year student in the Cancer Biology discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program at UT Health San Antonio. She is in Dr. Alexander Bishop’s lab in the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute building.
She first became interested in cancer biology when she heard a lecture by Dr. Bishop in one of the core classes of the IBMS program.
“Before that, I actually wanted to avoid cancer research because I thought there was already so much work being done on the topic,” she said. “But the more I talked with him, the more I realized that even all that work just scratches the surface.”
Her work currently focuses on a particular type of pediatric cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Once diagnosed, the current 5-to-10-year survival rate is 60 to 70 percent.
“I think it’s important to look beyond the numbers – to really focus on the quality of the treatment and patient quality of life after treatment,” she said. “The current treatment for Ewing’s sarcoma has remained the same for the past 30 years and has remained toxic to patients. Pediatric patients continue to come back to the clinic due to side effects after remission.”
Furthermore, she explained that young patients that undergo treatment for Ewing’s sarcoma have an increased risk of developing other forms of cancer due to the treatment itself. Return of cancers or metastasis of the cancer drops the 5–10-year survival rate dramatically to about 30 percent.
Her focus is not just to improve the survival rate of patients, but also on improving the quality of life of the patient by focusing on the mechanism of Ewing’s sarcoma.
“Cancer biology is so extremely complex and although there has been a lot of progress throughout the years, almost everybody I know including myself has been, has a family member that has been, or personally knows someone that has been affected by cancer. There is a desperate need for more targeted therapies in cancer and for a deeper understanding of the molecular mechanisms of action in current therapies.”
Outside of research, she was a part of the Bioinformatics Interest Group (BIG). Last year, she served as the historian for the group.
“I really enjoyed being a part of the team in BIG and learning more about bioinformatics. I’m trying to see how to implement bioinformatics or computational biology in my own research,” she said. “I think big data is becoming increasingly important and can really take your research to another level once you get over the learning curve.”
She was also a part of the LINC Interprofessional competition, where she worked as team leader with students from the other schools to combat vaccine hesitancy in South Texas.
“I realized working in detail on a public health issue that each person saw the problem from a slightly different angle based on their previous experiences in their career. And I realized in this problem that research can go far in creating a vaccine, but cannot move forward without clinical and medical field experts working together with researchers to address the public.” She said. “I think it’s a valuable lesson to take moving forward in my career.
She explained one of her favorite aspects of graduate school has been the welcoming community that she has experienced on campus.
“I’ve been increasingly surprised at how integrated leadership in the program is with the students-little things like zoom meetings with the dean…It makes me feel like there is always someone there to listen, whether I have actually contacted them or not.”
She explained that the program and school almost feel like a part of her family.
“My husband proposed right after the interview weekend before I got accepted to the program, and he even wore the UT Health socks that were given to the new students on our wedding day! We’ve loved being here, and really enjoy feeling at home in UT Health.”
Outside of school, she loves spending time with her dogs and backpacking/camping.
“We have 2 dogs, a boxer mix and a shih tzu poodle mix. We love dogs partly because my father-in-law owns a doggy day care business called Dogtopia in Purcelville, Virginia (if you ever need a dog daycare in that area let me know!) so dogs are really a large part of our lives.”
She explained that her love for camping started in undergrad and she hopes one day to go through the whole Pacific Crest Trail.
“So far my favorite places I’ve backpacked or camped in no particular order are on the Pacific Crest Trail near the Continental Divide Loop, Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, Joshua’s Tree, Texas Hill Country State Natural Area, and of course anywhere on the Appalachian Trail.”
This article was written by Charlotte Anthony, marketing specialist at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at UT Health San Antonio. This article is part of the “Meet The Researcher” series which showcases researchers at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.