Wright Scholarships awarded to 3 women with promising futures in cancer research

By Brian Hartz

The Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center’s 2017 William J. Wright Scholarship has been awarded to three promising future cancer researchers: IU School of Medicine students Ciersten Burks, Teresa Easwaran and Anna Filley.

The scholarship carries with it a $6,000 financial reward but also the expectation that recipients will devote at least two months to a cancer-related project during their school year. Such projects can range from lab experiments to health outcomes research and cancer awareness programs. 

This year’s crop of Wright winners represent a wide variety of backgrounds, scholarly interests and motivations for pursuing a career in medicine, ranging from a former captain of the IU women’s soccer team to a classically trained cellist and a Purdue graduate who originally aspired to become an engineer.

Burks, 26, is the soccer player. Or was. Hobbies and recreational interests tend to fall by the wayside when one is in medical school, she says.

“It’s been a while, but I’m hoping to play again this summer,” she says. “The last time I played was last summer, but I grew up playing the game. I started playing when I was 4 and played all the way through my senior year of college.

“Now I just play recreationally in the summers mainly or in the fall. I still love it. I mean, it brought me so much more than just playing the game including many of my close friendships.”

Burks is on track to finish her medical degree in May 2018 and plans to make otolaryngology the focus of her career in medicine. Otolaryngology involves the treatment of disorders related to the head and neck, including specific structures such as the ear, nose and throat.

Otolaryngology, Burks says, “involves a great deal of variety, from head and neck cancer to laryngology and voice disorders to otology and everything in between. I enjoy it all. I had an uncle who was born deaf, so that has always been a subject of interest to me, especially being able to provide children with cochlear implants so that they can go on to live normal lives with as normal hearing as possible.”

During the 2016-17 academic year, Burks was a research fellow in IUSM’s otolaryngology department, working under the tutelage of Charles Yates, M.D., Marion Couch, M.D., Ph.D., and D. Wade Clapp, M.D. She conducted research on neurofibromatosis types 1 and 2, cancer predisposition syndromes of the nervous system that can lead to hearing loss, among other ailments.

“It has been exciting to pair my interest in otolaryngology directly with the research that I’ve been doing for this past year,” she says. Burks adds that she plans to continue to study neurofibromatosis, both type 1 and type 2, during her fourth year at IUSM.

“It has been exciting to pair my interest in otolaryngology directly with the research that I’ve been doing for this past year.”Ciersten Burks

Easwaran, meanwhile, is the music aficionado of the 2017 Wright Scholars group. She graduated from IU in 2012 with a degree in biology as well as a degree in cello performance from the Jacobs School of Music. Music seemed destined to be her future until her father was diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“His suffering not only brought me to medical school, but it has kept me motivated in medical school,” she wrote in the personal statement that accompanied her application for the Wright Scholarship. “Because of my dad’s personal battle, I decided then I must do something to serve others who are suffering – and I believe that research is critical in my pursuit.”

Easwaran’s passion for research is evident in the fact that she’s done two stints (summer 2015 and then the entire 2016-17 academic year) studying developmental neuroscience; specifically, how a class of axon guidance molecules, the semaphorins, play critical roles in synaptic structure and organization in the lab of Alex Kolodkin, Ph.D., at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. To help facilitate those efforts, Easwaran twice received fellowships from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a highly competitive award program.

“Cancer and development are very intertwined because a lot of cancer is like regression back to development but in some sort of malformed way,” she says, explaining her interest in developmental biology. “You can’t really understand physiology and cell biology unless you understand development.”

Like Burks, Easwaran, 27, says she wishes she had more time for her other interests, particularly cello, but she’s content to narrow her focus. “My mom will always say, ‘Oh, you should practice your cello for stress relief.’ I always tell her it’s actually stress-inducing because I know what I used to sound like, and now I don’t sound like that anymore.”

Easwaran manages to find time to help others, however, through her ongoing involvement as a volunteer with the Special Olympics and Down Syndrome Indiana. Her brother has Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, a form of epilepsy characterized by treatment-resistant seizures and intellectual impairment, which spurned her interest in developmental biology research as well as her desire to dedicate time to organizations that aid people with developmental disorders.

Easwaran, who plans to pursue neurosurgery, says the Wright Scholarship will be a boon to her long-term goals because of the opportunities it presents to further her research. “Ultimately, I want to be a surgeon-scientist, so having more exposure to learning how to ask the right question and how to answer it, I think, is very helpful.”

The third 2017 Wright Scholarship recipient, Anna Filley, also took a rather unique, circuitous route to IUSM and oncology research. She grew up in West Lafayette, Ind., the daughter of parents who were both faculty members at Purdue University, and was a Boilermaker during her undergraduate years. Filley, 25, says Purdue was the most logical choice for her, not only because of her familial connections, but because of her strong interest in engineering and tackling complex problems and questions. 

“I really liked engineering in general,” she says. “I really liked problem-solving, always have. It was a logical choice … obviously their engineering program is fantastic, so I felt very confident when I picked that.”

However, Filley discovered during her time at Purdue that she wasn’t interested in pursuing a career in engineering. “I really didn’t want to do it,” she recalls. “Which was such a bummer to me because I really loved the theory behind it, and I loved what engineers do. I just didn’t want to be one.”

Fortunately, she chose to major in biomedical engineering, which led her to realize that “medicine, in general, is just one giant problem. Treating people is problem-solving – that’s really what you’re doing. Someone comes to you and says, ‘I have all of these symptoms,’ and you have to sift out what’s important, you have to ask the right questions, you have to run the right tests, you have to interpret them – and that’s fun.”

Filley, who expects to receive her medical degree in May 2018, says she has her sights set on a career in neurosurgery. During her time at IUSM, she has been doing research in the lab of her mentor Mahua Dey, M.D., that focuses on glioblastoma, a highly aggressive form of cancer that originates in the brain.

“I find glioblastoma research fascinating because people who’ve been diagnosed with it have such a poor prognosis,” she says. “That’s one of the things that really got me interested in this field … that there’s seemingly little you can do to extend life for a long period.  

“When I learned that, I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s terrifying.’ It’s really tragic. And that’s something that I really hope changes, that I get to help change in my lifetime. Hopefully, as with all of the forms of cancers, we will put ourselves out of the job – that’s the ultimate goal.”

Filley says she intends to make neuro-oncology research and treatment a big part of her career because of the importance of the brain and central nervous system to the overall health and functional abilities of the body.

“I’m biased, but I think it’s the most important organ in the body,” she explains. “It’s what makes people people; it’s what allows them to respond to their environment; it’s what gives you your thoughts, your feelings; it’s what gives your life purpose, I guess, what gives everybody’s life purpose. And so that’s why injuries to the nervous system are just so devastating. And so, if I’m a doctor, this seems like a good way to really make a big impact on someone’s life and to really give them their life back.
 
“Also, the more I learned about neurosurgery, the more I learned that there’s so much more left to be discovered, there’s so much that we’re starting to be able to do, but we could do a lot better. And that really intrigues me because I’ve always loved research, I’ve always loved problem-solving. I love the idea that you can discover something new, and it seems like a really perfect fit here.”

“Also, the more I learned about neurosurgery, the more I learned that there’s so much more left to be discovered, there’s so much that we’re starting to be able to do, but we could do a lot better.
Anna Filley

Burks, Easwaran, and Filley are all perfect fits for the Wright Scholarship, and Filley’s reaction to winning the award sums up what it means for all three of them:

“I was really surprised, thankful, and excited. I honestly love the research that I’ve been doing and I feel really lucky to have found it in general. This is kind of ‘the icing on the cake,’ and just one more reason to follow my dreams. I feel really lucky.”

William J. Wright Scholarship

The William J. Wright Scholarship is awarded to third-and fourth-year medical students, physicians in cancer-related post-doctoral training programs, and/or medical doctors who are employed by the IU School of Medicine pursing cancer-related fellowship training, all of whom demonstrate the commitment and potential for conducting cancer research, and all of whom demonstrate outstanding character and well-defined professional goals. 

The expectation for this award is that the student will devote at least two months of their school year to a project that will further the care of patients with cancer, including a formal basic, translational or clinical science research project, quality improvement project, health outcome research, or cancer awareness program. 

Students with research grants that are already supporting their education are not eligible. 

This award is supported by the IU Simon Cancer Center William J. Wright Scholarship Fund.

For more information, contact Elizabeth Parsons at eparsons@iupui.edu.