The Canadian Cancer Society’s (CCS) Master’s and PhD Research Training Award competition was launched in March of 2023. The program is an investment in the next generation of cancer researchers across Canada and will support the future of the cancer research ecosystem in Canada. Many applications were received and reviewed by expert panels as well as reviewers whose lived experience has been affected by cancer. Applicants to the Master’s competition had a 21% success rate, while the PhD competition had a 16% success rate. More information about this significant investment cancer research training can be found on the CCS website. At the GCI, two trainees received these training awards: Alyssa Cristea and Caitlyn Mourcos. Read more to hear about what these awards mean for them and their research.

Canadian Cancer Society scholarship recipient: Alyssa Cristea

Alyssa Cristea is a master’s student in the second year of the Experimental Medicine program. She is supervised by Dr. Daniela Quail.

Her research focuses on obesity, which is estimated to promote 14-20% of all cancer deaths. One type of cancer strongly affected by obesity is colorectal cancer, which accounts for 10% of all new cancer cases in Canada. The liver is a common site of metastasis for colorectal cancer, and her lab has observed in mouse models that obesity enhances colorectal cancer liver metastasis and alters monocyte and T cell populations so they can no longer protect against cancer progression. Alyssa’s project therefore aims to uncover potential mechanisms of tumor immune escape and provide insight on how to develop new immune-targeted therapies for patients with poor immune checkpoint therapy response.

We asked how this scholarship will contribute to the success of Alyssa’s research and future career goals, and she shared the following with us:

With the financial support of this scholarship, I can fully engage in my research and dedicate my time to pursuing advanced studies. I am incredibly honored to have my research recognized and supported by the Canadian Cancer Society and the Terry Fox Research Institute. Because this scholarship has a dedicated research allowance, I will have the opportunity to attend conferences where I can expand my professional and collaborative network with experts in my field, enhancing the quality and impact of my research. Attending various training programs organized by CCS and its funding partners throughout the duration of my award will further foster collaboration, networking, and allow me to present my project’s outcomes and receive feedback from researchers and patients alike.”

At this stage, I’m still in the process of exploring various career options, but I know my next step will be to develop my Master’s project into a PhD as there is still so much I want to uncover. This scholarship will provide me with valuable resources and opportunities to further develop my skills and knowledge in all avenues of biomedical research. It will serve as an essential steppingstone, helping me make informed decisions about my future career path and how best to achieve my professional goals. Through the opportunities to attend various workshops and events that this scholarship offers me, I will expand the network of researchers and healthcare professionals and learn from their expertise to apply to my future career.”

Many applicants face rejection during their scholarship journey. Securing funding at any career stage can feel like a series of setbacks and challenges. Alyssa shared her experience in applying for this scholarship, and what the results of this competition meant to her:

When you begin graduate work, securing external funding for the first time can be challenging because you don’t have a track record of success yet – someone has to take a chance and believe in you. Before being awarded this scholarship, I faced a series of rejections from all other funding opportunities I had applied for. To be candid, enduring months of continuous rejection was quite challenging, and the uncertainty regarding financial support was stressful. This competition was the last to announce its results for the 2023-2024 funding year, and to my great surprise, despite all the past rejections, I finally received a congratulations for the scholarship I wanted most. This experience and the wise words from my supervisor have taught me that the strengths of your portfolio and research will eventually be recognized, it’s only a matter of identifying the right opportunities that align with your objectives and goals. CCS saw potential in me and recognized the importance of my work, and because of that, I now have an opportunity to make an impact.

When I received the email confirming my successful application to the award, I was sitting in a conference room in the GCI listening to a lab member’s practice presentation. I opened the email during the question period at the end, and the visible gasp on my face when I realized I received the award caught the attention of my friend presenting in the front. Not sure whether to be concerned or congratulatory, she asked me what happened and I, very much still in shock, gave everyone the amazing news. I could not have received the news at a better time, surrounded by the people who support and encourage my research on a daily basis. I am truly honored to be a recipient of this award as my research is now supported not only by the Canadian Cancer Society and the Terry Fox Research Institute, but by the millions of Canadians who donated to make a difference in the fight against cancer. Having this support from Canadians inspires me to excel in my academic pursuits and make a meaningful impact in the field of cancer research.”

Canadian Cancer Society scholarship recipient: Caitlyn Mourcos

Caitlyn Mourcos is a second year PhD student in the Experimental Medicine program. She is supervised by Dr. Peter Siegel, and researches cancer brain metastases. She shared some details of her research and its broader implications:

It is estimated that 20-40% of cancers will spread to the brain and develop into brain metastases, most frequently in patients affected by lung cancer, breast cancer or melanoma. Unfortunately, these patients suffer from poor outcomes and diminished quality of life. While current treatment options are limited for these patients, research efforts to investigate the biology of brain metastases and develop efficient and innovative therapeutic strategies are ongoing. Recent advances by our group discovered the existence of two types of brain metastases: minimally and highly invasive. Whereas minimally invasive brain metastases remain limited in area and are easier to surgically remove, highly invasive brain metastases spread through the brain and lead to post-resection recurrence in patients. Many studies have discovered that factors released from cancer cells and brain cells, such as growth factors and immune modulating factors (cytokines), can promote brain metastasis progression. My research is focused on characterizing and intercepting this kind of crosstalk between the brain and tumor, which may drive the formation of highly invasive brain metastases. This project is important as it will help uncover mediators of cancer-brain crosstalk, which may be exploited therapeutically for patients with aggressive highly invasive brain metastases. This knowledge is crucial given the clinical availability of targeted growth-factor signaling inhibitors and cancer immunotherapies that could disrupt this crosstalk.”

We asked Caitlyn how this award will contribute to her ability to carry out this important research:

This award provides me with critical financial support and stability as I pursue my research project. It also supports my professional development through training and networking opportunities, which will support me in my pursuit of a career in cancer research. This studentship is especially meaningful as it is made possible thanks to donors and fundraising initiatives of the Canadian Cancer Society. I am honored to have been awarded this studentship, which recognizes the importance of my research and my potential as a trainee and young scientist. I am very excited to be a recipient of this award, especially since it will open the door to unique training opportunities, including interdisciplinary networking and discussions, as well as unique mentorship, science communication, and patient engagement workshops and training. Overall, having this support motivates me and provides me with the tools required to ensure the successful undertaking of my PhD.”

Like Alyssa and most other trainees, Caitlyn’s scholarship journey has had many ups and downs. She shared her experience with overcoming challenges in her application process:

It’s all about feedback! Like most students, I have had my fair share of rejection emails and letters. I believe application writing, like all academic and non-academic writing, is a skill that develops with practice, trial, and error. What helped me most with this application was feedback! Getting feedback from mentors, peers, and friends outside of academia is so important because it enables you to view your writing from an outside perspective and ensures you can convey your message to the reader, regardless of whether your work is relevant to their expertise.”

As most researchers know, many projects benefit from the expertise and efforts of an entire team. Caitlyn emphasized how the support of others has contributed to her success:

I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Peter Siegel for his exceptional mentorship and my lab mates for their endless support, with special thanks to Dr. Matthew Annis. I would also like to thank the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Institute, and especially thank the patient donors who have generously donated their resected cancer tissue. This project would not have been possible without their participation.”