New Pilot Grants Aim to Support Budding Cancer Researchers

January 31, 2022

The Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) through its Cancer Research Training and Education Coordination (CRTEC) Core has established the Trainee Associate Member (TAM) Pilot Grants Program to support up-and-coming graduate and medical student and post-graduate researchers across Columbia University working on all aspects of cancer research. 

Winners of 2021 inaugural trainee pilot grant awards
TAM grant awardees, top row, l to r: Kara Cicero, Divya Bhansali, Alina Lin Li, and Carla Bertulfo; bottom, l to r: Ricardo Cruz-Acuña, Ester Calvo Fernández, Wen-Hsuan Wendy Lin, and Jinqiu Lu

In its inaugural year, the TAM pilot grants have been awarded to eight outstanding trainees: Carla Bertulfo (biological sciences); Divya Bhansali (biomedical engineering); Alina Lin Li (cellular, molecular, and biophysical studies); Ester Calvo Fernández (pathobiology and molecular medicine); Kara Cicero, MD (hematology/oncology); Ricardo Cruz-Acuña, PhD, (medicine); Wen-Hsuan Wendy Lin, MD, PhD (pathology and cell biology); and Jinqiu Lu, PhD (hematology/oncology).

The TAM program was created in spring 2021 to promote the interests of trainees in cancer at Columbia, with an emphasis on cultivating a community at the HICCC with which they can identify and in which they can thrive. 

“We are thrilled to announce the winners of our inaugural TAM pilot grants and offer funding to support trainees whose research advances our understanding of cancer and who are working towards new, innovative solutions in cancer treatment and care,“ says Wendy Chung, MD, PhD, associate director for education and training at the HICCC and Kennedy Family Professor of Pediatrics in Medicine at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons

The TAM pilot grants support trainees’ projects across laboratory, translational, clinical, and population science fields. The award helps advance the careers of young investigators engaged in early-stage cancer research to gather important data for grant applications and publications. The funding can be applied to service costs for HICCC Shared Resources or Community Outreach and Engagement, as well as for reagents and materials tied to those services. Predoctoral trainees receive one year of $5,000 in funding, and postdoctoral trainees receive $10,000. 

Congratulations to the 2021 TAM pilot grant winners. 

Predoctoral awardees: 

Carla Bertulfo, PhD student in biological sciences 
Mentor: Adolfo Ferrando, MD, PhD
Project: "Identifying regulators of gamma secretase inhibitor sensitivity and resistance in T-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia" 

Divya Bhansali, PhD student in biomedical engineering 
Mentor: Kam Leong, PhD 
Project: "Nucleic acid-binding nanoparticles for managing pain and progression in oral squamous cell carcinoma" 

Alina Lin Li, MD PhD student in cellular, molecular, and biophysical studies 
Mentors: Anil Rustgi, MD and Peter Sims, PhD, 
Project: " Elucidating the Role of FRA1 in Kras-Driven Pancreatic Acinar-to-Ductal Metaplasia" 

Ester Calvo Fernández, PhD student in pathobiology and molecular medicine 
Mentor: Andrea Califano, PhD
Project: "Targeting Master Regulators of Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma" 

Post-doctoral awardees: 

Kara Cicero, MD, postdoctoral clinical fellow in medicine (hematology/oncology)
Mentor: Alfred Neugut, MD, and Suzanne Lentzsch, MD, PhD 
Project: "Prevalence and Risk Factors of Monoclonal Gammopathy of Undetermined Significance in a Black Sub-Saharan African Population" 

Ricardo Cruz-Acuña, PhD, postdoctoral research scientist in medicine (digestive and liver diseases) 
Mentor: Anil Rustgi, MD
Project: "Engineered in vitro organoid culture platform reveals the contributions of cell intrinsic and extrinsic factors in the pathogenesis of esophageal adenocarcinoma" 

Wen-Hsuan Wendy Lin, MD, PhD, postdoctoral clinical fellow in pathology and cell biology
Mentor: Teresa Palomero, PhD 
Project: "Mutational landscape, transcriptomic signatures and the role of microenvironment in peripheral T-cell lymphoma tumor evolution" 

Jinqiu Lu, PhD, postdoctoral research scientist in medicine (hematology/oncology)
Mentor: Michael Shen, PhD 
Project: "Transitional states and novel drivers of lineage plasticity in castration-resistant prostate cancer"