Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up? Chances are your adult self wound up with different ideas than your five-year-old self. Not so for Allison Cleary, the daughter of Lone Tree Health Center charge nurse Kathleen Cleary, RN. Allison, now 30, knew she wanted to be a doctor from the time she was a little girl, and has never wavered with her choice.
“I remember when Allison was in second or third grade and she got an assignment to do a self-portrait,” Kathleen recalls. “Well, her self-portrait had all the body parts – bones, organs. It was really interesting. I framed it and it’s hanging in her office now.”
Although she expanded her interests to include scientific research as well as medicine, Allison has stayed true to her childhood dream. Recently another dream came true, although it wasn’t one she would’ve ever been able to imagine when she was in first grade.
Just after she completed the PhD component of her dual MD/PhD program at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, Allison found out that she had won the prestigious Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists, awarded to promising early-career scientists who conduct groundbreaking life-science research.
The grand prize included $30,000, publication of her application essay in the journal Science, a trip to Sweden for the Science & SciLifeLab Prize ceremony, and attendance at the Nobel Prize Award ceremony. Not too shabby for a career that is only beginning. Allison will finish up her medical degree in May.
She thought that the prize committee had made an error when they notified her that she won.
“Honestly, I thought they must have made a mistake when I got the call. But it is a really big honor to have won,” she says.
If you’re impressed with Allison Cleary’s prize, wait until you hear about her essay, which is based on her thesis and research. Contest applicants must have received their doctoral degree within the previous two years and the thesis topic must be in one of the following areas: Cell and Molecular Biology, Genomics and Proteomics, Ecology and Environment, or Translational Medicine.
Cleary’s Cell and Molecular Biology research investigated how tumor cells communicate with each other to promote tumor growth. While a graduate student in the laboratory of Edward Gunther, a professor of medicine at The Huck Institutes of Life Sciences at Penn State, Cleary studied mouse models of breast cancer. She focused on new research that showed multiple tumor cell subpopulations coexist within individual human breast cancers. Researchers had previously believed that these cell subpopulations competed with each other, with the “fittest” subpopulation influencing the tumor.
Cleary’s research showed that these cell subpopulations actually cooperate with each other to affect tumor growth.
“We were able to identify that some tumors have two distinct populations of tumor cells and that the tumor cell growth depended on interactions between both populations,” she explained. “Either population by itself was unable to grow tumors, but when we mixed the two cell populations together, tumors grew rapidly.”
She now aims to get accepted into a pathology residency training program on a physician-investigator track, which will incorporate additional research training into the traditional clinical residency training, Cleary says.
Cleary originally thought she would study musculoskeletal and neuromuscular disorders like muscular dystrophy, as she did when she was in a lab as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado Boulder. But after she did a rotation in a cancer lab in graduate school, she was hooked, and switched gears.
“I became absolutely fascinated by cancer,” she recalls. “The fact that our own cells, for some reason, have been hijacked or gone rogue and are now working against us is so interesting.”
Soiree in Sweden
Kathleen, who has been a nurse for almost 20 years, joined University of Colorado Health last year. She and her husband traveled to Stockholm in last December to attend Allison’s award banquet and ceremony. They had to miss the Nobel Prize ceremony.
“It was overwhelming, absolutely overwhelming,” says Kathleen. “She’s worked very hard throughout these nine years [in her MD/PhD program] and it’s tremendous recognition for her work. I’m pretty proud of her.”
For Allison, the time in Stockholm was “one amazing event right after another.” After the Science & SciLifeLab Prize presentation, she was on hand for the Nobel Prize presentations, with the King of Sweden in attendance.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity … truly a dream come true,” says Allison of mingling with the Nobel Prize winners for chemistry, physics, economics and literature. “I was awestruck. I got to meet Tomas Lindahl, who was one of this year’s chemistry winners.”
She has since bought some art with her $30,000, but plans to use the majority of it to pay down student loans. She’s most excited, though, that the prize will bring attention to her research.
“Hopefully people will fund these types of projects in the future and it can only do good things, not only for my own career but for this avenue of investigation within cancer research,” says Allison.
Ultimately, she would like to have her own research lab and continue to do cancer research. Having accomplished so much at such a young age, we can only imagine what the future will bring for Cleary – and for cancer research as well.