UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Michele W. Sequeira

To Train a Scientist

UNM Cancer Center Exposes Students to Careers in Cancer Research Thanks to American Cancer Society Diversity Grant

The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center is using a grant from the American Cancer Society to introduce more underrepresented minority undergraduate students to cancer research.

Jennifer Gillette, PhD, leads the Undergraduate Pipeline Network, a program that helps those students with an interest in biomedical research to learn more about their career options. Becoming a scientist requires years of classes and research training, but some students lack access to mentors who can guide their scientific development, Gillette says. The $22,000 Diversity in Cancer Research grant will enable UNM’s Undergraduate Pipeline Network to add four more students.

The 10-week program pairs about 30 undergraduates with UNM faculty mentors. The students work as researchers in a laboratory, write and present their research results, and learn about new employment fields that are developing. For many students, the program offers a first-time glance at the breadth of available work in scientific fields.

“The overall goal of UPN is really to just get students excited about the health professions,” Gillette says.

The students study a range of fields within the biomedical sciences. In its 11 years, the program has gone from two applicants to 160. According to Gillette, more than 95% of the students who complete the program obtain a college degree and more than half continue with further education.

No single grant supports the Undergraduate Pipeline Network. To keep the program running, Gillette partners with several other faculty members to use grants from the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center, the New Mexico IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program, the UNM School of Medicine, the UNM College of Pharmacy, and other sources. The Diversity in Cancer Research grant from the American Cancer Society, which was awarded to Michelle Ozbun, PhD, will fund four students who are interested in cancer research.

Ozbun had previously been awarded an Institutional Research Grant from the American Cancer Society, which is used to help junior faculty establish their research careers. Now she and Gillette will extend the undergraduate program by introducing students to topics in cancer research and by having mentors meet with the students to advise and encourage them throughout the school year.

“The mentors would follow up with a student,” Ozbun says, “to see if they’re facing any barriers, doing research at their university, or thinking about applying for graduate school.”


Our goal for the Undergraduate Pipeline Network is to open doors and get students thinking about what other opportunities are out there.

Jennifer Gillette, PhD, Associate Professor

Gillette says that many students who are interested in science gravitate towards becoming a doctor because that’s a profession — sometimes the only profession — they have heard about in the biomedical sciences. Ozbun adds that some young women believe they can’t become doctors because they’re female.

“It’s exposure,” Gillette explains. “Our goal for the Undergraduate Pipeline Network is to open doors and get students thinking about what other opportunities are out there.”


About the Undergraduate Pipeline Network at UNM

The Undergraduate Pipeline Network summer research experience seeks to cultivate students' interest in research while helping them attain skills needed to apply for and succeed in post-baccalaureate education. The program provides the opportunity for students to choose from several areas of research at the University of New Mexico's Health Sciences Center. The program period covers 10 weeks in the summer and scholars participate in the program a minimum of 40 hours per week. Visit the Undergraduate Pipeline Network webpage to learn more and apply.

About Michelle Ozbun, PhD

Michelle Ozbun, PhD, is a professor in the UNM Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology and in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology. She co-leads the Cellular and Molecular Oncology Research at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center. She has broad background in molecular virology and cancer biology and is an international expert in human papillomaviruses (HPVs), with specific training and 25 years of experience in studying the replicative life cycles of HPVs and carcinogenic progression of HPV-initiated lesions.

About Jennifer Gillette, PhD

Jennifer Gillette, PhD, is an associate professor and Senior Director for Research in the UNM Department of Pathology, and is a full member of the Cellular and Molecular Oncology research group at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center. She serves as the Director of the UNM School of Medicine Undergraduate Pipeline Network Program. Her research focuses on hematopoietic stem cell and leukemic cell interactions with the bone marrow microenvironment, focusing on the role of the regulatory scaffold protein CD82.

UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center

The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of New Mexico and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center in a 500-mile radius.

Its more than 120 board-certified oncology specialty physicians include cancer surgeons in every specialty (abdominal, thoracic, bone and soft tissue, neurosurgery, genitourinary, gynecology, and head and neck cancers), adult and pediatric hematologists/medical oncologists, gynecologic oncologists, and radiation oncologists. They, along with more than 600 other cancer healthcare professionals (nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists, navigators, psychologists and social workers), provide treatment to 65% of New Mexico's cancer patients from all across the state and partner with community health systems statewide to provide cancer care closer to home. They treated approximately 14,000 patients in about 100,000 ambulatory clinic visits in addition to in-patient hospitalizations at UNM Hospital.

A total of nearly 400 patients participated in cancer clinical trials testing new cancer treatments that include tests of novel cancer prevention strategies and cancer genome sequencing.

The more than 100 cancer research scientists affiliated with the UNMCCC were awarded $35.7 million in federal and private grants and contracts for cancer research projects. Since 2015, they have published nearly 1000 manuscripts, and promoting economic development, they filed 136 new patents and launched 10 new biotechnology start-up companies.

Finally, the physicians, scientists and staff have provided education and training experiences to more than 500 high school, undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral fellowship students in cancer research and cancer health care delivery.

Categories: Comprehensive Cancer Center, Health, School of Medicine