Interdisciplinary Cancer Research Project Lands $100,000 Grant

Professors Mike Roberts and Jeff Forrester in a lab

Professors Mike Roberts (left) and Jeff Forrester have worked together for years on training Dickinson students in how to conduct multifaceted cancer research. Photo by Dan Loh.

With leukemia in the crosshairs, Profs. Roberts and Forrester will spend two years training students for a future in medicine and biomedical research

by Tony Moore

Associate Professor of Biology Mike Roberts and Associate Professor of Mathematics and Data Analytics Jeff Forrester were recently awarded a two-year, $100,000 Integrated Research-Education Grant by the Charles E. Kaufman Foundation—the first by any Dickinson faculty members. The grant, titled “Reprogramming Acute Myeloid Leukemia Cells Toward Cell Cycle Arrest and Death,” will fund Dickinson student researchers for two years—including two semesters and eight weeks of full-time summer research.

“This focused research experience enables students to master techniques, explore the primary literature and think deeply about cancer as a series of yet unanswered questions,” says Roberts, noting that the work is based on his ongoing research on acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and mechanisms for reprogramming AML cells to stop dividing and self-destruct. “We believe this will position them for research positions and graduate/professional training at leading cancer centers after graduation.”

Beyond training future cancer researchers generally—and in the specifics of the mechanisms of stopping cell division and catalyzing cell death—the grant provides funds for students to attend research presentations at the 2023 and 2024 Annual Meetings of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Previously, Roberts and Forrester have collaborated on projects funded by the National Science Foundation (“Interdisciplinary Training for Undergraduates in Biological and Mathematical Sciences”) and the Seraph Foundation (“Preparing and Inspiring Students for Careers in Cancer Medicine and Research”). The two have been training teams of undergraduate researchers together for years, focusing on the biology of acute myeloid leukemia using both molecular and computational methods.

“Today’s students need to be proficient in a variety of mathematical and computational techniques to utilize the full potential of the data being collected,” says Forrester, noting that the research students over the years have come from a variety of majors, including biology, biochemistry & molecular biology, neuroscience, mathematics and computer science. “The next generation of cancer researchers will need to understand not only how biological data is generated but how it is stored, organized and accessed, and this grant allows students to participate at all levels of the research process, from bench work to the construction and analysis of the signaling networks in the leukemia cell.”

With Dickinson’s data analytics major, a new cohort of students will join in, preparing for careers in cancer biology/medicine with the ability to generate and analyze large datasets directed toward better understanding this affliction. Both data and biology classes will be required elements of the student course load related to the research grant.

“The training of young scientists in the application of modern molecular and computational methods to understand cancer has been my main career goal,” says Roberts, who notes that the cross-disciplinary nature of the research allows students to rapidly incorporate the specific bioinformatic tools required to answer deep scientific questions. “And over the years, these authentic research experiences have prepared our students well to ultimately obtain careers in a variety of biomedical fields.”


Published January 25, 2023