In a year when so much is uncertain or unprecedented, something that has remained constant is the need for cancer research and training opportunities for the diverse academic community across the California State University (CSU) system. As they have for decades, CSUN’s faculty and students remain committed to this ongoing work.
For the second time, CSUN will host an interdisciplinary conference — this time entirely online — for students, faculty, alumni, researchers and other members of the community across California and beyond. The California State University – Interdisciplinary Cancer Meeting (CSU-ICM) is scheduled to take place from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6. To minimize costs and adhere to public health guidelines, this year’s meeting will be run as a Zoom webinar with interactive Zoom meetings for the poster and networking sessions.
In 2018, CSUN hosted the inaugural CSU-ICM to provide access to sessions on interdisciplinary cancer research, which exemplifies the core missions of the CSU system — to advance scientific knowledge, learning and discovery; professional development; and prepare a diverse scientific workforce.
“Interdisciplinary science benefits the [research] work — you get people with really specialized skills combining forces,” said biologist Jonathan Kelber, a co-founder and faculty co-organizer of the conference, who runs an NIH-funded cancer research lab, The Developmental Oncogene Laboratory, at CSUN. “In biology, we call this synergy. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That’s the goal in bringing people from different disciplines together.”
The conference attracts a cross-section of CSU students — undergraduates and graduate students — as well as faculty. The 2018 meeting drew a large number of undergraduates who reported that they were interested in going on to earn their Ph.D. and work in research or teaching. Like the CSU system itself, the majority of attendees and presenters in 2018 identified themselves as belonging to ethnic groups that remain underrepresented in STEM disciplines.
“This year, we’re expecting an even more diverse geographical demographic, because people can attend from anywhere,” Kelber said. “We already have registrants from Alabama and England. At the same time, I think everyone’s really tired of Zoom. So, we are cautiously optimistic that we’ll get more attendees this year.
“We have to balance that out with the loss of the personal connection — those casual and very organic interactions that happen in the hallways or over lunch,” he continued. “We’re trying to foster that in some ways. Right before lunch, we’re running a graduate school information session for students, which is new.”
The day’s keynote speaker will be Dr. Carlos Arteaga, director of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center and associate dean of oncology programs at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Arteaga, who graduated from medical school at the University of Guayaquil in his native Ecuador, will speak on strategies to overcome therapeutic resistance in cancers.
Arteaga trained in internal medicine and medical oncology at Emory University and the University of Texas Health Sciences Center San Antonio, respectively. He has more than 300 publications in cancer research, and he was the longtime director of the National Cancer Institute-funded Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s SPORE (Specialized Center of Reseach Excellence) in Breast Cancer, where he co-led several clinical trials. Among many other titles and accolades, he served as the 2014-15 president of the American Association for Cancer Research, the largest cancer research organization in the world.
The day’s other primary speaker will be Michele Rakoff, a 30-year breast cancer survivor, patient and research advocate. Rakoff’s address will focus on patient advocacy. She has spent 20 years working in clinics directly with patients and the community, developing mentoring programs to help newly diagnosed patients and consulting on the development of survivorship programs for women with metastatic disease. She is the executive director for the Breast Cancer Care & Research Fund and board director for the National Breast Cancer Coalition. She has participated as a scientific and programmatic peer reviewer for the U.S. Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program and holds a seat on the California Teachers Study Scientific Task Force.
In past years, Rakoff has visited CSUN as a guest lecturer, including in Kelber’s general education cancer biology course, Biology 285, he said.
“We will start the [Nov. 6] meeting with a patient advocate who’s a cancer survivor,” Kelber said. “That really sets a proper tone for the meeting and puts it in context, why we’re meeting. … We don’t want to forget the purpose of the research we do.
“As an interdisciplinary meeting — not everyone who’s attending is a cancer researcher — many more physical- or social-science-minded attendees don’t have as much opportunity to consider the potential clinical or patient-focused aspect of their work.” he said. “So, it’s doubly important to begin the event with this backdrop and place in the context of cancer, why are we doing this — because there are a lot of people who are suffering and many, unlike our advocate speaker, don’t survive.”
This year’s event has received an enthusiastic boost from seven CSUN student “trainee organizers,” who are supported by a new grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Cancer Institute, in addition to CSUN centers and departments including the Department of Biology; Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; College of Science and Mathematics; Marilyn Magaram Center for Food Science, Nutrition and Dietetics; Office of Research and Sponsored Programs; and Office of Graduate Studies.
“My experience in organizing this meeting has been extremely valuable in learning all the hard work and logistics that go into planning a conference, no matter how big or small,” said Cameron Geller, a third-year master’s student in biology who conducts research with Kelber. “The conference provides CSU students with a great opportunity to practice presenting their research before an audience, as well as great networking opportunities as students prepare for transitioning out of their undergraduate programs and into the next phase of their education or professional careers.”
CSUN professors Daniel Tamae, Maria Elena de Bellard and David Bermudes are also helping organize the meeting.
The deadline to register for the event is Nov. 2. To register or for more information, visit www.csu-icm.org.