It’s a boost for young science — and a boon for diversity.
Dr. Athea Vichas and Vasundhara Sridharan have received the inaugural Hutch United fellowships, an initiative to back underrepresented researchers and bolster the retention and recruitment of lab talent at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Each recipient said the fellowships — which provide $100,000 in annual direct costs — would advance their science and elevate Fred Hutch’s stature as a highly inclusive organization.
“Earning it is an incredible honor,” said Vichas, a postdoctoral fellow in the Moens Lab, where researchers study development of the vertebrate brain, including genes involved in cancer progression.
“The presence of Hutch United speaks to the priorities the center has placed to allow underrepresented groups within the STEM field to not only feel included and welcome but also supported,” Vichas said.
The advancement of biomedical research, Vichas said, requires a diverse and collaborative environment that encourages scientists to investigate, question, and learn. As an undergraduate student at the University of Oregon, Vichas co-led workshops through the school’s LGBT center and spoke on community panels “to share my personal experience as an out lesbian,” she said. Vichas also volunteers on the Hutch United Mentoring Network committee.
“Fostering really great mentoring is going to be key to retention and recruitment of these students,” Vichas said. “Right now, without that, you can easily walk into a STEM field and look around a room and not see anybody who is like you.”
Sridharan, a PhD student at the University of Washington, completed her undergraduate studies in Chennai, India five years ago. Since then, she’s sought scholarships or fellowships to support her academics and research but, as an international student, she never found a program for which she was eligible — until Hutch United offered its fellowships.
“This is such an amazing award and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity,” said Sridharan, who works in the Fred Hutch lab of Dr. Jonathan Bricker, studying people’s perceptions of tobacco addiction.
“They’re offering something that I have searched for in every corner of the Internet, every organization; nobody is offering something like this. This fellowship is a sign that Fred Hutch has gone beyond most universities and organizations in terms of attracting, creating opportunities for and retaining qualified scientists from diverse backgrounds and different parts of the world,” Sridharan said.
Hutch United is a Fred Hutch organization dedicated to promoting underrepresented and self-identified minority scientists at the institution. The group’s new fellowships, which fund one graduate student and one postdoctoral fellow for up to two years, are the most inclusive of their kind among top cancer centers, organizers said.
The fellowship program welcomes applications from trainees identifying as racial and/or ethnic minorities, disabled, women, transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, veterans, non-U.S. citizens and individuals with low socioeconomic backgrounds.
“It is an incredible honor to be co-chair of Hutch United at the time that these two fellowships have come to fruition,” said Erin dela Cruz, a graduate student in the Fredricks Lab. “I believe these fellowships … set the Hutch apart from other cancer centers as a leader in promoting inclusiveness in the biomedical workforce.”
Eligible candidates don't necessarily need to be employed at Fred Hutch but should have established relationships with a primary mentor based in one of the Hutch's five scientific divisions. Hutch United received “an impressive group” of fellowship applicants, dela Cruz said.
“During the review process, Athea and Vasundhara rose above the pack. Both had impeccable letters of recommendation, impressive scientific proposals, and mentorship from renowned scientists,” dela Cruz said. “Over and above that, Athea and Vasundhara thought deeply about how their past experiences have influenced their desire to become leaders in diversity and inclusion — both here at the Hutch and beyond.”
Vichas said the fellowship would allow her financial freedom to utilize large-scale experimental approaches to determine the fundamental principles underlying brain development. She also plans to use the funding to develop her leadership skills and to present her work at conferences “without wondering if I have enough money.”
“Athea's research seeks to understand the genetic and cellular mechanisms governing some of the earliest events in the development of the vertebrate brain: how cells move, sort and change shape in order to generate the primary subdivisions of the forming brain,” said Dr. Cecilia Moens, Vichas’ primary mentor at the Hutch. “In pursuing this research, Athea continues the Basic Science Division's longtime commitment to addressing fundamental questions in molecular, cell and developmental biology.”
Sridharan said she would use the fellowship money to continue her Hutch work exploring a unique area of psychological science — the growth mindset theory, or a person’s belief that they or anyone can overcome addiction. (Those with a fixed mindset believe, in short, once an addict, always an addict.)
“Applying the theory to tobacco control research, using our quit smoking mobile technologies, is a brilliant idea that will likely advance the Fred Hutch’s impact on cancer prevention,” said Dr. Jonathan Bricker, Sridharan’s primary mentor. Bricker is a member of the Public Health Sciences Division at the Hutch.
“Beyond her dissertation project,” he added, “her introducing the growth mindset principles to others here would be valuable for the cause of diversity in the Fred Hutch faculty and staff.“
— Bill Briggs / Fred Hutch News Service
Dr. Soheil Meshinchi, a pediatric oncologist and member of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch, has received a $500,000 extended consortium grant from the St. Baldrick's Foundation, a volunteer-powered charity dedicated to raising money for childhood cancer research, the organization announced Thursday.
Meshinchi’s research is titled: “Pathway Directed Treatment for Refractory AML,” or acute myeloid leukemia. AML remains one of the most difficult challenges in pediatric oncology. More than half of children with the disease are not helped by available therapies.
In March, Meshinchi also received a $250,000, two-year Reach Grant from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to finding cures for all kids with cancer. He has used that award for a study to identify drugs to target gene mutations unique to childhood AML, working with colleagues to target pediatric-specific mutations on a gene called FLT3.
“Through genomic sequencing we have discovered 32 different novel mutations in the FLT3 gene that are unique to childhood AML and may provide the possibility of extending FLT3 inhibitors to a larger cohort of children with AML,” Meshinchi said in March.
In all, the St. Baldrick’s Foundation awarded 79 new grants totaling more than $22 million “to support the best and brightest researchers looking for cures and better treatments for all childhood cancers,” the organization said in a news release.
“At St. Baldrick’s, we believe that every child deserves to live a happy and healthy life, free from cancer,” says Kathleen Ruddy, CEO of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
“Although progress has been made, there is still much to be done when it comes to finding cures for the countless subtypes of kids’ cancers and creating less toxic treatments,” Ruddy said. “Kids are special and need to be treated that way. Our donors, volunteers and partners make these grants possible, and we are beyond thankful for each and every one of our supporters for contributing to our mission.”
— Bill Briggs / Fred Hutch News Service
Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith."