Two DHO Undergraduate Researchers Win Awards

The Department of Human Oncology (DHO) is dedicated to mentoring undergraduate researchers. By working in the department’s labs, students learn from world-class scientists, contribute to the department’s research agenda, and gain experience that can have a lasting impact on their future careers. Two undergraduates who work with DHO scientists have recently been recognized for their research.

portrait of Alejandro Oñate, undergraduate in the Morris Lab
Alejandro Oñate

Alejandro Oñate, a member of the Morris Lab who graduated in May with a double major in biochemistry and music, was selected by Dean of the College of Letters and Science Dr. Eric Wilcots for the Dean’s Prize, one of the College’s highest academic honors.

“When I first joined the Morris Lab, I was unsure on whether or not I would pursue a career in research, but I have come to love the life in a lab,” Oñate says. “My talks with [DHO Associate Professor] Dr. Zachary Morris and the other students confirmed my desire to become a physician-scientist. Additionally, I have become a lot more confident in developing, implementing, and communicating my scientific ideas in a professional setting. One of the things I really value about the Morris Lab is the emphasis they place on independent thinking and planning for their student researchers, and I have greatly benefited from that experience.”

Zachary Morris headshot
Zachary Morris, MD, PhD

Oñate’s first research project involved studying macrophages and how they may be used to augment an in-situ vaccine anti-tumor effect in the brain. Over time, his work evolved to focus on the immunogenic effects of radiation. And for his senior thesis project he studied the pharmaceutical agent Bempegaldesleukin (NKTR-214) and its potential anti-tumor immune effects in combination with stereotactic radiation. “Overall, my research has followed a pretty consistent theme: seeking to optimize the in-situ vaccine effect studied at the Morris Lab,” he says.

Over the next year Oñate will continue to work in the Morris Lab to expand on his senior thesis, hopefully prepare a manuscript for publication, and assist with other lab projects. He plans to begin an MD/PhD program in 2023 and pursue a career as a physicians-scientist.

photo of Christine Glitchev, undergraduate in the Wheeler Lab
Christine Glitchev

Christine Glitchev, a junior biochemistry and neurobiology major who works in the Wheeler Lab, is one of just 27 students who earned a Sophomore Research Fellowship in 2022. She is studying the effects of using inhibitors of two receptor tyrosine kinases in triple-negative breast cancer.

“I hope this work will help other professionals investigating triple-negative breast cancer to continue to find different treatment options to help those individuals diagnosed with this challenging disease,” Glitchev says. “I also look forward to working on other projects to hopefully make a difference and continue to pursue my passion for research.”

Deric Wheeler, PhD
Deric Wheeler, PhD

As a freshman Glitchev was encouraged to collaborate with a research lab on a project for a biology course. “We had the option to work independently by examining the scientific literature or work with a professional research lab. I decided to work in a lab because I really wanted to get exposed to the field of molecular biology research. I always found it intriguing and something to consider pursuing as part of my professional career. I did some research and reached out to [DHO Professor] Dr. Deric Wheeler. Luckily, there was an opening for me. I’m really thankful for that.

“Since beginning I felt very supported in the lab. Dr. Mari Iida [senior scientist in the Wheeler Lab] is my primary mentor. She has taught me a lot of the lab techniques. She and Dr. Wheeler have been a great support. They never hesitate to answer questions and always encourage me to find the best way for me to continue to develop my skills.

Mari Iida, PhD
Mari Iida, PhD

“They care so much about the undergraduates. I’m always comfortable going to them for any kind of support or guidance on a project. They always make sure that I fully understand what is going on so that I can work as autonomously as possible and contribute in a meaningful way.”

Glitchev plans to go to medical school and after her experience in the Wheeler Lab feels drawn to a career in oncology.

“I want to incorporate research into my career, but I don’t know how extensively yet. I do want to continue to work in translational research and hopefully collaborate with researchers in labs like the one I currently work in and continue to investigate new ways to treat cancer patients.”