UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

August 2018

Recognizing our hard-working TRAINEES

Anyone who pops into a laboratory located in the Hillman Cancer Center’s Research Pavilion or the 4th floor of the Magee-Women’s Research Institute building, late at night or on a weekend, is likely to bump into one or more of Hillman’s predoctoral students or postdoctoral fellows—the trainees who work incredibly hard to learn and perfect the skills necessary to become independent investigators. For the most part, they further the research programs of their faculty advisors (for students) and mentors (for postdocs), while receiving very little recognition for themselves. There is no question that a strong trainee workforce reflects the future trajectory of cancer research, as well as Hillman’s reputation as a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center that has the mission to reduce the burden of cancer through research, patient care, education and training, and community outreach.

In order to attract and provide meaningful instruction to trainees of the highest caliber, we require funding to cover their relatively modest stipends, the costs of their required and optional coursework, and the costs of their laboratory reagents and supplies. We also require funding for developing meaningful enrichment programs that extend beyond the typical classroom experience. This includes settings for presenting their work and meeting potential new collaborators, both within our own institution (an example being Hillman’s Annual Scientific Retreat) and at national professional society meetings.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have specific competitive grant mechanisms in place to support pre- and postdoctoral training. Hillman is fortunate to have been awarded six fully cancer-focused “T32” training grants from the NCI, each of which is supporting up to six trainees, predominantly at the postdoctoral level. Our funded training programs are in the areas of: Biotherapy of Cancer (Dr. David Bartlett, Director); Cancer Therapeutics (Dr. Edward Chu, Director), Skin Biology and Cancer (Dr. John Kirkwood, Director); Cancer Immunology (Dr. Dario Vignali, Director); Cancer Etiology and Prevention (Jian-Min Yuan, Director); and Head and Neck Oncology (which I direct). The T32 grants allow the program directors, with the assistance of a steering committee, to select specific applicants among an eligible pool to fill the training slots. The trainees then select primary and secondary mentors among a group of Hillman faculty who are affiliated with the grant.

Of great benefit to the future careers of our trainees are the highly competitive, peer-reviewed individual training grants that are awarded to pre- and postdoctoral trainees by funding organizations that include, but are not limited to, the NCI and other NIH institutes, Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program, American Cancer Society, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. These grants recognize the past accomplishments and future potential of applicants who write full research proposals that include a detailed training plan, and receive letters of recommendation from their advisor or mentor, and other faculty (frequently including me) who are in a position to judge their merit.

The gold standard among these individual trainee research grants is the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award (affectionately called the ‘Kangaroo Grant’), which funds two final years of postdoctoral fellowship training plus up to three additional years as a newly appointed tenure-track faculty member. Individuals who receive these prestigious grants (less than 250 are awarded throughout all of the biomedical sciences each year) are particularly well positioned for successful academic careers. Dr. Elise Fouquerel, a postdoctoral fellow who has been working in the laboratory of Hillman investigator Dr. Patricia Opresko, was the recipient of a K99/R00 award in 2016. Since arriving at Hillman, Dr. Fouquerel has published multiple papers with Dr. Opresko and former Hillman faculty member Dr. Robert Sobel, with several appearing in well-regarded, high-impact journals. Within the next few months, Dr. Fouquerel will be leaving Hillman to establish her own laboratory at one of the institutions that has offered her an appointment as an Assistant Professor. Although we are sad to see her go, we are delighted that her future accomplishments (and we expect there will be many) will forever be a part of Hillman’s training legacy.

To further boost our training legacy, we just launched a brand new program to attract the most talented postdoctoral candidates to our Cancer Center. Thanks to generous Henry L. Hillman Foundation funding and the vision provided by our Associate Director for Education and Training Dr. Christopher Bakkenist and other senior leaders, we are sponsoring a competition to bring 20 finalists from a broad nationwide applicant pool to Pittsburgh, so that they can meet with our faculty and tour our facilities. Up to three will be selected as Hillman Postdoctoral Fellows for Innovative Cancer Research—an honor that will be accompanied by a larger-than-usual postdoctoral stipend and additional funds for research-related activities. The postdoctoral awardees will join the other talented investigators who have already been selected as Hillman Fellows for Innovative Cancer Research. Completed applications for our competitive postdoctoral program are due by August 31, 2018, so if you know anyone who would make a good candidate, please direct them to the program’s website.

You too can further Hillman’s mission to reduce the burden of cancer by contributing to one or more of the funds that we use to support research: the Immunotherapy Research Fund for research aimed at harnessing the body’s own immune system in the fight against cancer; the Innovation Impact Fund for transformative high-risk/high-reward research; and the Hillman Cancer Center Director’s Fund for ensuring progress on Hillman’s strategic plan. Our Giving and Development page provides instructions on how to make your donation.

I look forward to telling you more about the accomplishments of Hillman trainees and introducing you to the candidates selected as Hillman Postdoctoral Fellows for Innovative Cancer Research in the months to come.


Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD