In his Ph.D. research, Steve is studying inflammatory breast cancer, specifically the microenvironment of normal tissue and immune responses to determine how non-cancerous cells may make this form of cancer more aggressive. A fundamental characteristic of inflammatory breast cancer is not necessarily that it grows and divides more rapidly than non-inflammatory breast cancer, but that inflammatory breast cancer cells are much more migratory and invasive. “This is considered the most lethal form of breast cancer; it comes on quickly, is quick forming and can metastasize within weeks and months instead of years.” he says.
U-M is a great place for collaboration. His lab is a combination of research between the Cancer Center and the College of Engineering. He studies cancer cell motility in collaboration with engineers who have designed a custom-made channel that allows him to witness and test how the cancerous cells move and migrate in response to stimulation from immune cells.
The M.D./Ph.D. program takes an average eight years to complete, and Steve is in his fifth year. With residency to follow, it is a long road to employment. Regarding his program, he says, “I just love it. After two years of med school, I was eager to get back into the research lab. Next year I’ll be excited to return to patient contact. It is the best of both worlds.” Eventually he envisions himself balancing both roles, seeing patients and managing research, as he sees thesis advisor, Dr. Sofia Merajver, does as an M.D./Ph.D. herself.
How he ended up at U-M for his graduate studies is no surprise. “I’m from a Michigan family. My parents both have two U-M degrees and my brother has one. I did my undergraduate degree here in Biomedical Engineering and earned a Master’s in Pharmaceutical Engineering, but I looked around when it came time to apply to medical schools. Michigan was still the best choice.” He cites the appeal of interdisciplinary work between the Medical School and College of Engineering as a significant draw, having worked on the engineering side of a collaboration as an undergrad.
“I have a passion for cancer research,” Steve says, when asked about his most memorable experience as a graduate student. “In a surgical rotation, I was able to participate in removing a metastasized colon cancer tumor in the liver, truly a six-handed procedure. The direct impact on prolonging one patient’s life gave me a deeper perspective on the research I do. The long-term benefit of impacting all cancer patients is gratifying, but personally impacting a patient in real time is pivotal.”
“People at Michigan are itching to collaborate; there are few barriers or obstacles. The proximity of programs facilitates this,” he mentions the streams of undergraduates interested in learning and enjoys engaging them and fueling their excitement for medicine and research as they rotate through his lab.
His path was profoundly affected when he attended an international conference in the first year of his Ph.D. program. “Having 50 or 60 global leaders provide ideas and critiques of my research plans laid the foundation for me and helped shape my research direction. My Rackham Travel Grant made this experience possible. I’ve been fortunate to get great funding.”
While busy in the lab and hospital, Steve and his fiancée (a pediatric resident at U-M’s Mott Children’s Hospital whom he met in medical school) are finding time to plan a summer wedding. As with many advanced-degree couples, their path will be partially determined by residency placement. It might mean a move for this Michigan man!