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Episode 15: The State of Cancer Training: The CABTRAC Perspective

In this episode, we talk to the leadership of the Cancer Biology Training Consortium (CABTRAC) recorded live at the 2023 Cancer Biology Annual Retreat in Newport Beach, California. We hear from Dr. Mary Reyland, CABTRAC President and Board Chair, Dr. Rolf Brekken, CABTRAC 2023 President-Elect and Secretary, Dr. Dan Welch, CABTRAC Vice President and Treasurer, and Dr. Amy Bouton, CABTRAC Ex Officio Past President. They share their perspectives on the state of cancer training today and more.  

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Mary Reyland

Mary E. Reyland, PhD

Dr. Reyland is a Professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medial Campus where she directs an NIH funded research laboratory focused on cell death and cancer.  She is a leader in cancer biology training at her institution and on the national level. She has been involved with CABTRAC since 2010 and currently serves as President. 




Rolf Brekken

Rolf A. Brekken, PhD

Dr. Brekken is the Effie Marie Cain Scholar in Angiogenesis Research, Professor in the Departments of Surgery and Pharmacology, Deputy Director of the Hamon Center for Therapeutic Oncology Research and Director of the Cancer Biology Graduate Program at UT Southwestern. The Brekken laboratory is focused on understanding how the tumor microenvironment effects anti-cancer therapeutic efficacy. Trainees, including 16 PhD students, 12 postdoctoral fellows, 14 clinical fellows and over 25 summer trainees (undergraduates, graduate students, medical students and high school students) have trained in the Brekken lab over the last 20 years.



Dan Welch

Dan R. Welch, Ph.D.

Dan R. Welch, Ph.D. is a cancer biologist whose laboratory has is most widely recognized for contributions to understanding the genetic basis of metastasis. After receiving a BS in Biology from the University of California-Irvine and a PhD in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Texas-Houston, Welch worked in the pharmaceutical industry studying cancer biology and virology before joining Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. In 2002, his laboratory moved to the University of Alabama - Birmingham and in 2011, he founded the Department of Cancer Biology at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. He is a Komen Scholar Emeritus and Past-President of the Metastasis Research Society and of the Cancer Biology Training Consortium (CABTRAC). He currently serves as Vice- President/Treasurer of CABTRAC. He served as Editor-in-Chief for Clinical & Experimental Metastasis and as Deputy Editor of Cancer Research and is on the editorial board of 8 other journals.

Amy Bouton

Amy H. Bouton, Ph.D.

Amy Bouton, PhD, is the Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Cancer Biology at the University of Virginia (UVA). For over three decades, Dr. Bouton has led a breast cancer research program focused on understanding the intrinsic and extrinsic signals that drive aggressive tumor behaviors. She also served as the interim chair of the UVA Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Cancer Biology from 2021-2022. Dr. Bouton has been an active grant reviewer for the NIH (including serving as Chair for the Tumor Cell Biology panel), the NCI (including serving as Chair of the NCI-I Transition to Independence panel), Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program where she is currently a member of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs’ Breast Cancer Research Program Fiscal Year 2023 Programmatic Panel.

She served as the Associate Dean for Graduate and Medical Scientist Programs at UVA from 2010-2019 and as the inaugural Associate Director for Education and Training in the UVA NCI-designated Cancer Center from 2014-2023. She served as Principal Investigator of the NCI T32 Cancer Training Grant from 2009-2023 at UVA and remains as PI of an NCI R25 grant that supports summer research experiences in cancer for undergraduate and medical students. Dr. Bouton has gained tremendous benefit from interactions with other colleagues devoted to training the next generation of cancer researchers through her service on numerous external advisory boards for cancer training programs and NCI-designated Cancer Centers across the country, as well as her participation on the Executive Board and as president of the Cancer Biology Training Consortium (CABTRAC) in 2022.

Show Notes

Cancer Biology Training Consortium (CABTRAC) 
2023 Cancer Biology Annual Retreat 
Mary Reyland, Ph.D. 
Rolf Brekken, Ph.D. 
Danny Welch, Ph.D. 
Amy Bouton, Ph.D. 
NCI Cancer Training Branch 
NCI Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities  
NCI Youth Enjoy Science (YES) Research Education Program (R25)  
NIH Broadening Experiences in Science Training (BEST) Awards 
Published Paper on Essential Components of Cancer Education 
Cancer Research Training and Education Coordination (CRTEC) Leaders 
National Science Foundation (NSF) 
Dr. Robert A. Winn, Director of the VCU Massey Cancer Center  

Ad: NanCI by NCI 

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Episode Transcript

Oliver Bogler: Hello and welcome to Inside Cancer Careers, a podcast from the National Cancer Institute. I'm your host, Oliver Bogler. I work at the NCI in the Center for Cancer Training. On Inside Cancer Careers, we explore all the different ways that people join the fight against disease and hear their stories. Today, we're talking to the leadership of the CABTRAC, the Cancer Biology Training Consortium. And we have a lot to discuss, listen through to the end of the show to hear our guests make some interesting recommendations. They're going to be interesting, right? And where we invite you to take Your Turn. So it's a pleasure to welcome the leadership of CABTRAC. We're talking at the annual retreat of the consortium in Newport Beach, California. And with me are Dr. Mary Reyland, the CABTRAC president and Professor in the Department of Craniofacial Biology at the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus.

Mary Reyland: Hello, Oliver, thank you for inviting us,

Oliver Bogler: Dr. Rolf Brekken, the CABTRAC president elect and secretary. He's the Effie Marie Cain Research Scholar in the Department of Surgery, Hamon Center for Therapeutic Oncology Research Pharmacology, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Rolf Brekken: Hi, Oliver. Thanks for having us.

Oliver Bogler: Dr. Dan Welch CABTRAC treasurer, Professor, Department of Cancer Biology at the Kansas University Medical Center.

Dan Welch: HI Oliver, thanks for having us.

Oliver Bogler: And Dr. Amy Bouton CABTRAC past president, Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor, Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Amy Bouton: Hi, Oliver, looking forward to our conversation.

Oliver Bogler: So perhaps my first question is, what is CABTRAC? I'll start with you, Dr. Reyland.

Mary Reyland: Well, that's an excellent place to start. So CABTRAC was established in 2005. And its mission is to tackle cancer, of course, and to focus on the training of highly qualified individuals who will be the leaders in cancer research in the future. We were established initially to facilitate institutions, acquiring training grants to train the next generation of cancer researchers. And we've expanded considerably over that time to include other focus on mentoring and curriculum development and diversity, and, as we'll discuss later. So we are a collaborative network of institutions, and we currently have over 80 cancer centers that belong to CABTRAC. This provides a rich network for exchanging ideas and for networking and for helping our trainees. We have a good number of trainees that come to these meetings and helping them discern career paths and get insight to the other important part of our work is to collaborate with the NCI training branch such as Dr. Oliver Bogler. To help both of us have a conversation about where we're going and what we perceive as the needs for cancer biology training in the future.   

Oliver Bogler: Hey, that's me! It's great. Yeah, Amy, please,

Amy Bouton: It has been so much fun watching the evolution of CABTRAC over these years. It started as a grassroots sort of effort of a number of principal investigators of T32  grants, and has really grown and blossomed over the years to address many of the issues that we all are interested in in terms of training our next generation of cancer researchers.

Dan Welch: The only other thing I might add is, CABTRAC has allowed people who are in the trenches at various institutions with training, to be able to have the conversation directly with people like yourself. And over the course of the 20, almost 20 years, there have been some policy changes because folks have listened and it's a good two way conversation.

Oliver Bogler: So one of the key activities of CABTRAC is to hold the annual retreat, which is starting today. So who attends this and what do you cover? What kind of topics are discussed?

Amy Bouton: Well, so I can start that discussion. This is the largest group that we've ever had in a retreat. It includes about 200 participants. These participants are trainees, we have about 50 trainees coming. These are graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from across the country. We have about 60 or more faculty who are involved, very involved in the training of these individuals. And in the last few years, we've also seen a growth in the number of administrators who come who are involved in Cancer Center administration of education and training pretty much since CRTEC, that is the cancer research and training  sort of branch of the cancer centers and the growth of and the importance of that group

Oliver Bogler: To the community yeah has become an important thing. I mean, NCI started the CRTEC component, remind me how long ago?

Amy Bouton: Just about four years, four or five years ago. And we now have a lot of administrators who partner with the Associate Directors for CRTEC, to provide training and programming for their trainees at their individual institutions.

Oliver Bogler: And the faculty, some of them are CRTEC leaders, like I think, Dan, you lead the CRTEC at your institution.

Dan Welch: I was going to say when I joined, I was part of a cancer center, but CRTEC didn't exist. Over the course of my time here, several people who represent institutions that want to become cancer centers have become involved. I happen to have been involved early on with a white paper that CABTRAC published on what was considered the essential components of cancer education. And that, I think, has helped set the bar for training, so that even smaller undergraduate institutions or non cancer centers are making sure that people come out with an actual knowledge of where cancer research, and even treatments are going. That's something that we've done over the past… I've been doing this for maybe 13 years. So I've just seen that evolution like Amy and Mary and Rolf.

Amy Bouton: Can I say one more thing before Rolf adds? I forgot to say that the NCI staff has always been a very significant partner with us at CABTRAC. And has always sent a number of people, including yourself and your team, to interact with us throughout the entire retreat time. And that's been a very, very important component and opportunity for us in CABTRAC.

Oliver Bogler: Yeah, Dr. Naz Zahir, the director of the Cancer Training Branch is here with some of her team members. So we're excited to, as always, to be part of this meeting.

Rolf Brekken: Yeah, so the other folks, faculty-wise that attend are usually like graduate program chairs. So folks who run a graduate program focused on cancer biology, you know, some folks that are mentors for K awards or F awards, or maybe they're T32 PIs. And so that's the bulk of the faculty, and you do have some faculty who are just interested in ‘what is the best practice for applying for a fellowship? Or how do I help my institution apply for T32?’ And so you have faculty like that that also attend.

Oliver Bogler: Also PIs of R25s, right?

Rolf Brekken: Yes, absolutely. R25 has become a much more frequent topic of discussion in the last, say, five years.

Mary Reyland: I would just add that we do still have programming for helping people get institutional training grants, as well as individual fellowships for trainees. And in particular, last year, we had R25-YES, fellowship workshop, I'm sorry, grant workshop. And this year, we have a more pan R25 workshop, as well. As well as sessions specifically for F and K awards.

Oliver Bogler: Yeah, the R25-YES, that's the ‘youth experience science’ program run out of the Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities, a sister center at NCI. Dan, you mentioned a white paper that you wrote about the key elements or you and a group wrote about the key elements, sure, of cancer, research, training and education. What are the key elements?

Dan Welch: Well, it's too short to really describe here, but it's transdisciplinary. So we want all the key elements of the genetics, what are probably most recently defined as the hallmarks of cancer and the classic Hanahan and Weinberg paper, covering all of those elements with sprinkling in some of the clinical issues, even though most of the people attending here are bench scientists or foundational science people. Our goal is to do things that go to the clinic and help patients and even if it's years down the road, we want to still have that goal as front and center. And more and more of us are incorporating patients as part of the educational experience. Because I remember when I was a graduate student at MD Anderson, a great place, I never met a patient in my entire time there.

Oliver Bogler: It's a big hospital.

Dan Welch: And I walked by patients, I’d see them, but I had no idea what they were experiencing. And that has impacted me in my core cancer biology class. I have patients come in and teach as part of the class. It's the most transformative, 90 minutes of the semester, they're learning molecular biology and all that. But 4 or 5, 10 years later, the students remember Miss Jernigan said, or Mr. Smith said, and they just recognize those key elements. It's a holistic kind of education, without being dictatorial, of details, because I, you know, this as well as any anybody sitting here, the truth of 20 years ago, has been modified just a little bit as we learn new things.

Oliver Bogler: That's a good thing. Yeah, I mean, I think what you're also saying is that, what we think of as, as an ideal research, training experience has changed dramatically. I mean, there's the technology has changed, the science has changed, but also how we think about it, and how we think perhaps, I'll just say this, from my perspective, how we now put the graduate student or the postdoc more in the center of it, rather than just, you know, offering a research opportunity or a, you know, a course and it's like, take it or leave, it fit in or don't now, it's much more… Is that right? Is that how you see it?

Dan Welch: I definitely say it that way. I think, my observation, early years, a lot of principal investigators use graduate students and postdocs as a labor force. And this group, in particular CABTRAC focuses on the mentoring so that they are the next generation of people being the PI's as opposed to the ones just doing the work. That's, it's always supposed to have been that way. But it hasn't always been universally applied.

Mary Reyland: I think the experience of understanding what the important questions are in cancer research is really a matter of being in the clinics, if you can going to tumor boards if you can, being exposed to what patients go through, and the decisions that their physicians are making, and so on our… At our training institution, we place a high value on clinical translational experiences, and we require our trainees to craft a clinical translational experience. So they actually can make better decisions about what they're… the focus of their research and the directions they're going.

Amy Bouton: I think even at tumor boards, for example, the thing that is really impactful for our trainees, when they go is to have the clinicians look at them and say, we have this problem in the clinic, we would say 10% of the people who present in a certain way, have a chance of recurrence, but the recurrence is so extreme, that we put everybody on a particular drug. And yet we …and these clinicians will turn to our trainees and say, ‘what we need from you is to be able to distinguish who needs to be on that drug and who doesn't’. And that … having our students and postdocs to learn that and hear that from the people who are in the trenches, treating our cancer patients is very, very important. And that's what really gets them back to the bench with a lot of excitement.

Rolf Brekken: But that's it, right? I mean, you want to have a training environment or training experience in which the trainees are still excited about doing research when they're done. And they're, they're invested, and intellectually in the process. And if you can do that, in the context of cancer research, then I think you've been successful whether that trainee goes on to be an academic or not. And I think CABTRAC  wants to provide guidance on how best to do that. And you get that by interacting with other people in you know, other graduate program chairs, other mentors, other T32 PIs, etc.

Dan Welch: And I think our ultimate goal is, as the leaders of those programs, is to be able to inspire people to find their purpose, and how they can impact the disease, wherever that is, whatever they're doing. And I'll share a personal story. I started after graduate school in the pharmaceutical industry, developing a program for anti-metastatic drugs, the first one in the pharmaceutical industry, and one of the clinicians there who did all the Phase One trials said, I have no idea how to design a trial to do what you're proposing to develop. So I'll do a sabbatical in your lab. And he was in my lab for six months. And I thought I had it all solved, treating rats and mice. And he looked at me, he goes, ‘that sounds brilliant. But that would never happen in a clinic.’ And he taught me in that one sentence, volumes, and that experience kind of thing we try to convey. And we've learned, I've had students from Mary's program come to my lab, and they're wonderful. But they learned a little different thing here. I've worked with Rolf, people from there, I think all of us have interacted with a lot of different trainees and the experiences at every place are just as different as every place.

Oliver Bogler: For sure. I think that's one of the reasons I guess we also want our people coming up through the career to experience different environments, and so on. So you've touched on the multidisciplinary. Rolf, you just a moment ago, also talked about the fact that people who are in your programs training to become cancer researchers don't all follow in your exact footsteps, don't become academic leaders they go into other venues. I wonder how the way you have led and managed your cancer research training programs has evolved over the last 10 or 15 years. That's a reality, this diversity of careers, but how have your programs embraced that perhaps?

Rolf Brekken: I think programs, one recognize that success doesn't mean how many PhDs have you put into a faculty position in the end. So the metric of success has changed. And I think that's important. I think we also recognize that going to different vocations, besides being on the bench, is satisfying to our trainees, you know. I've had trainees who are in consulting, and they love it, I have had trainees that went into investing, and they're excited about what they're working on. And in the end, I think you have to realize that their happiness or their fulfillment in their, in their end careers, should be the metric. I love it when people stay in academics. But that's not always, clearly that's not going to happen all the time.

Mary Reyland: I think related to that is the realization of the faculty that there are many different paths that students can take and postdocs, and they can all contribute in different ways to the whole problem that we're talking about, whether it's drug development, whether it's drug testing, whether it's basic research, there are, you know, it's much wider than maybe we envisioned when we were in graduate school and postdocs.

Amy Bouton: But I think one of the things that I always think is, it's important to convey to our trainees that the training they will be getting from any of us and in any of these institutions, is not going to be a waste of time, no matter what career path they ultimately take. Because they're learning important skills. They're learning important people skills, they're learning important problem solving skills. And they're being introduced to discovery science. And it doesn't matter where they end up those skills and that introduction to discovery and research, I think, can do wonders for the way they look at the world and the way they look at their careers. And I think if we convey that to our trainees, then they are much more engaged and excited about doing it and recognize that really, the world is at their fingertips.

Oliver Bogler: Let’s take a quick break, and then we’ll turn our attention to the state of the cancer research training field. 


Oliver Bogler: PubMed lists over 270,000 cancer papers published in 2022 – that is a staggering 750 papers every day. It’s great that cancer research is such an active field, but it makes finding the pubs that are critical to your work a challenge. What if you had an AI that paid attention to the papers you read and suggested others as they appear in PubMed? That is exactly what the NCI is building with an app called NanCI. With me to discuss it are two members of the team that are creating NanCI.

Duncan Anderson: NanCI is an app for cancer scientists, and it helps them to discover the research in new ways and connect with each other and build their personal networks and share information and get to know each other. We've just launched the ability to actually chat with a piece of research, so you can actually have a conversation and ask questions about a research paper itself.

JD Wuarin: Instead of having to read the whole paper yourself, you can now simply ask questions and NanCI will answer those questions. One of the cool features we've also added is that it will read the abstract and figure out what questions you might want to ask the paper.

Duncan Anderson: We're using artificial intelligence within NanCI to help to make information easier to find and easier to understand and easier to interact with. The only information we're using is the scientific data. So the research paper, for example, we don't allow our AI to go off and answer random questions that might introduce all sorts of concerns.

JD Wuarin: And so the idea will be that eventually with NanCI straight from your pocket, you'll not only be able to chat with papers and understand what papers are about, but also based on your interest, it will suggest to you what you might want to investigate, maybe which gene mutation you might want to look at, which new disease might be related to what you're doing. And that's gonna be interesting, I think.

Duncan Anderson: If you start working in a field which you don't have a lot of experience in, it can be a bit daunting. There's a lot of information to read. We have this idea that you could tell NanCI what the field is and NanCI would go off and present you the key influential papers in that space so you can very quickly get your head around what this new field is.

So today, NanCI can be used by cancer researchers in the USA. So it's available from the Apple App Store for the iPhone. And there's a restriction on the downloads, which means that you need to have an email address associated with a cancer research institution.


Oliver Bogler: Now back to our conversation with the CABTRAC leadership.

I wonder then, if I might ask you as leaders in the field of cancer research training, where are we in 2023 in the field in general? What are the challenges that you see in your work?

Mary Reyland: Well, I think one of the challenges is that we have some catch up to do in terms of the academic faculties, being able to actually expose our trainees to this wide variety of training paths. And, you know, we are mostly qualified to train people that would go into academics, because that's what most of us know. And so it's really been on the institutional level. And to some extent on the NCI level, that has driven a lot of these enhancements, the BEST Awards, the other things that other types of support, to provide insight into different training paths for students and because really the most of our time anyhow, at least in our programs are going not going into academics. And the other thing I'd like to say is some of that has to do with quality of life issues. And I think we have to be, we can't be naive about addressing those. I'm not sure the answers are easy. You know, this is a very competitive environment. But I think that that's something that we have to make academics a little bit more attractive by addressing some of these quality of life issues.

Amy Bouton:And I think I want to add on to that, because I think, as role models, it's important to recognize that we, are, have a responsibility to our trainees. And I think what happens in this world of very competitive grant funding lines and, you know, real challenges that the faculty all have in their lives and in their professional careers, it's very easy to let the weight of the world fall on us. And yet, as role models, I think it's also very important to make it clear that this is a wonderful career and a wonderful area, that we have all devoted our lives too. And I think we lose that sometimes. And so I think it's too easy for our trainees to get bogged down with seeing how their leaders and mentors have so much frustration, it's incumbent upon us to remember the really wonderful things about what we do, and to communicate that to our trainees. So I try to do that [laughs].

Dan Welch: I totally agree with both of those comments, but you asked what the frustrations are. We spend most of our time hunting down funds for the labs. And when the funding rate is the 10th percentile-ish, plus or minus, that means 90% of your feedback is negative. And we can't protect students and postdocs from hearing that. But as Amy was saying, we are competing against the best of the best, very smart people. And those other folks are going to make comments and suggestions and even criticisms that will improve the science that we do, and how to take that and turn that criticism into something positive and motivating is probably one of the hardest things that I think we have to do.

Oliver Bogler: And I think that's a really interesting point. I mean, sometimes people describe it as resilience, and other people don't find that a very helpful term. But taking criticism in a positive way and building on it. That's really, really tough in any walk of life. So what are you doing Dan in your program, for example, to help early career scientists manage that.

Dan Welch: Well, I don't do it in a program, I do it in my lab. And I try to just sit down and just talk about it. I will say I am writing a book along with a couple of colleagues about the elements of science, and the scientific method. And one of the latter chapters is how to offer constructive criticism, not just criticism. And one of my grad students who years ago was scooped by two big labs that had like 15 postdocs each working on a project that he alone was doing. But he had the regulator of all those things they were finding. So we joke that we were making lemonade out of lemons. And he's now successful. But, you know, there was a cliff. That is one foot was off that cliff when we got those papers. So that's, that's the way we have to deal with it.

Oliver Bogler: Yeah, I mean, that's not an unusual experience in science, right? And you have to learn to navigate that and still find the love for the work.

Amy Bouton: But these are good life skills, right? No matter what it is that you're gonna go into. Everything doesn't always work out great. And it's good to be able to see, you know, people who you look up to navigate that kind of thing as well and hopefully navigate it well.

Rolf Brekken: But just to get back to what's cool about being in academics, I mean, there is … academic freedom fine. If you can, I can do it. If I can fund it, yes, but there's also a fair bit of freedom in terms of you know, I set my schedule. I go to work with the ball cap if I want. I can wear shorts, most of the time.

Oliver Bogler: You're wearing both right now. Yeah.


Rolf Brekken: There is some … I enjoy that. I enjoy the lifestyle. I … you work hard, but you work on stuff you want to work on for the most part from a science perspective, right? You're excited about problem x, and you're gonna dig into it. And there's some gratitude in discovering the solution or a partial solution or some data that speaks to a solution. I think that's exciting. And I think we often don't convey that enough to our trainees, because we're worked up about, I need that data for a grant that I'm putting in next month, or whatever. And I think that Amy's exactly right, we need to be as faculty, we need to make sure that we're projecting a positive message about being faculty

Dan Welch: I just want to amplify that a little bit. Our society now is a solution and that 30 minute sitcom. Research requires delayed gratification, acceptance of delayed gratification, helping people get through those valley of the shadow of death. Because they're going to climb that mountain on the other side, is, is a challenge. But it's very fulfilling, the eureka days. We used to joke when I was in Hershey, research is best characterizes good days and bad months. And I modify that as great days and bad months, because you're troubleshooting once it works.

Oliver Bogler: There's nothing quite like it for sure. So I want to come back to the state of the field a little bit. One of the concerns people often talk about is are we competing for talent, right? I mean, you in your own research teams. Mary, you kind of touched on this a little bit a moment ago, saying, you know, people coming up through the ranks are concerned about quality of life. How does it look, from your perspective?

Mary Reyland: I think, yes, I think that we are competing for talent. And but I think we have to think of it more broadly than just competing to fill our academic ranks. I think that success has to also be in people that go, like I said earlier to industry, develop drugs, work on clinical trials, I think this a little, a little bit of what I see is that trainees can see sort of how how our life is, but they assume that any other life is going to be better, but it's not necessarily better. So I think, to Amy's point before, is I think we really do have to communicate to those that we believe are really going to be excited about discovery, we have to communicate how, how exciting that actually is, I mean, I tell people, like can sit there and dream about things and ask questions, and I can actually go into the laboratory and answer those questions. And that is a very amazing thing to be able to do in your life. It's really creative. It's really innovative. It's very exciting. And I think all of us even after, you know, 20, 30, 40 years doing this, we still have those feelings when we actually get an answer. And it allows us to kind of open that window and, and move on. So I think we have to do a better job of that.

Rolf Brekken: I think the pool is still pretty deep, though. I think we are competing. When I see incoming…, I see the applicants to graduate school. They're fantastic. And it's a broad base. It's becoming more diverse. It's female rich, meaning at least at our institution, more than half of the trainees are female. I think that the training pool is deep. So I do think we are competing. Sure, there are people that are going into other fields, not science, or biology or cancer research. But I think the folks that are coming are high quality.

Oliver Bogler: You mentioned diversity … are we making progress on developing a cancer research workforce that's more representative of our country?

Rolf Brekken: I think we are just based on numbers at our institution and other institutions that I see whether that's going to represent the diverse nature of the United States in the next 10 years or not. I doubt it, but I think we are making strides.

Mary Reyland: It starts much earlier. You know, I mean, we take very seriously the diversity of our incoming group of PhD students, but we would like to see a deeper pool. And that obviously is, you know, a mission shared by the NCI training branch. And so the development of these pathway programs I think is really an important focus to help us expand the pool that we have to select from.

Dan Welch: This is not going to be a problem solved in our generation. It's going to start with getting younger kids, elementary school kids excited about science, just science not not necessarily cancer, and seeing that there are role models, who are a little further along in that pathway. That is what it's going to take. And unfortunately, there's way too much memorization of arcane facts in some of this high school, education, junior high, instead of the excitement of discovery and things like that. And I think it will take a transformative change of the educational system in order accomplish that. So I will maybe preempt a question that I see you look longingly look. But somehow the training branch should partner with NSF, and the National Science Foundation, who has a lot of elementary and junior high education, how can we partner together so that the bigger picture moves forward, as opposed to focusing only on cancer, which we're all passionate about, but it's not the only thing I'd like to see Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease, everything cured, and I'm moving much more closely to Alzheimer's the way I can't remember facts.

Oliver Bogler: Let's put a pin in that for just a second, I do want to come back to that theme. But I just want to give others a chance to weigh in on…

Amy Bouton: I was going to take the flip side, I agree we need to relate to these kids at a young age. But I also think we need to retain, I think we work very hard in our graduate programs to have as diverse a community of trainees as possible. And like you, Rolf, we have a very strong group of women graduate students, far more than male at the moment, and certainly in our applicant pool. But I think retaining this diverse population, as they move up the ladder into postdocs and whatever other careers they then take is tough. And that's where I see a second challenge that we as a whole community are going to need to address. So I think it's at both ends.

Oliver Bogler: For sure, for sure. So we're, we're does CABTRAC as an organization feature in these challenges and opportunities that we talked about. We have the president, the president elect, what are what is CABTRAC doing to make things better?

Mary Reyland: I think a really important component of what we do is provide a platform for networking. And so we have almost 50 trainees here. And they are meeting the leaders in this field. And hopefully, we'll go back and, to share that information and reach out to them. And I think we also provide them at our meeting with an opportunity to sort of demystify NCI, and, you know, I always tell tell trainees, you know, call your program officer, and they're like, oh, boy, they're big, scary people. But I mean, part of the, part of what we're doing here is, is giving them opportunities to interact with them in an informal manner. So I think that that's one of the things we do. We provide a lot of career development, programming this year. In particular, we have a partnering with industry program, and that's something we've… is is pretty new. And we do a lot of also diversity. We have a great, Dr. Winn is going to be giving a diversity keynote, and...

Oliver Bogler: He's the director of the VCU Massey Cancer Center.

Mary Reyland: Yes, the Massey Cancer Center, and we're going to have a panel on what it's like to be diverse individuals and what the challenges are, in cancer research, in cancer research training. So we have actually, I should mention a trainee group that we give, empower to both give us ideas and also to frame some of the trainee offerings that we have at the annual meeting.

Oliver Bogler: Yeah, and I think I just want to emphasize it, I think certainly from NCI’s perspective, CABTRAC provides a tremendous sort of one stop connection point to various components in the community for feedback. And yeah, any anything to add? Mr. President Elect, Dr. President Elect?

Rolf Brekken: No, I think Mary's covered that lovely and I think it's a great opportunity for trainees to come. I think it's also a great opportunity for those of us who are running graduate programs or at the meeting to hear and participate in diversity keynote, as well as the roundtable mean, those are all things that it's a it's an efficient way to get pertinent information that might help you down the road.

Dan Welch: I’ll word slightly differently: best practices and other places. It's a sincere form of flattery when other people copy what you've successfully done. And that has been instrumental. Certainly say, at my institution. If somebody's doing something, and we haven't done it well, and I can get those ideas, I'll gladly bring them back and they do the same thing.

Oliver Bogler: So it was mentioned earlier that the conversation with NCI can sometimes lead to policy changes. I'm thinking particularly in the, about the T32. And how we heard that the former ratio of postdoc to predoc slots was was cumbersome. And so we made a change there. You just mentioned in the recommendation that NIH embrace NSF to more, perhaps more holistically tackle, you know, STEM related education so that we have more, a more diverse group of people coming into our universities and on to the PhD programs. What other advice would you give NCI?

Mary Reyland: I think NCI and they're beginning to do this has to partner with us in providing training opportunities and pathways for some of these non clearly academic careers. And I know you're starting to do that. And I think that's very, that's very important. So trainees don't just see a connection with NCI training if they're going into academics, because most of our focus has been on helping them develop that academic track. But I think, it's it's great that NCI is beginning to support some of these other tracks and help us as, as the leaders in cancer biology training, give guidance to our trainees

Oliver Bogler: And we've got folks from our SBIR team at the conference with the retreat here today. Dr. Jonny Franca-Koh is here. Other bits of advice for us?

Dan Welch: I think to parallel what Amy was saying to its recruiting and retaining, identifying those barriers to get the way through, what can NCI do, I think NCI is actually doing a very good job, I'm about to step into the political mire right now. We have to work with Congress to understand that research of 10 years or whatever, can be set back five years by funding ending. And then you lose all momentum, you lose personnel, training stops, and things like that. We have to educate the people who are defining that funding stream. And I would say CABTRAC can work with the NCI. I don't want to use the word lobbying because there are all sorts of stigma associated with that, but educating them so that we can fix that fundamental issue. That's I think, you don't think that could be better.

Oliver Bogler: Of course, NCI doesn't lobby as a part of the executive branch. But but we do talk to people in Congress about some of these opportunities, in particular, for breakthroughs, particularly this time when our field is kind of, you know, booming with all kinds of exciting advances. So…

Dan Welch: How to do that is the challenge...

Amy Bouton: And I think from a workforce perspective, I think, CABTRAC and training, particularly in your branch of the NCI is so critical, and to be able to communicate the importance of that. And actually, with CABTRAC, we have a group of, I would say, faculty who are particularly engaged and enthusiastic about training and, and so I think we're a great resource if you ever need us to be able to help communicate the importance of, of what we do.

Oliver Bogler: Thank you. No, I definitely … we recognize that very much. So you're obviously in constant contact with early career scientists in your roles. And they're trying to find their way into the field, and then their position in the field? What advice are you giving them? I'm sure you're doing this on a daily basis.

Amy Bouton: I tell them to stay the course, that this is just a really, really great opportunity for them. And there's so many different career paths that they can take from the training and branch off from a training that they get. But the opportunity for discovery science, and the excitement, we were all talking about the eureka moment, etcetera. I just encourage them to stay the course because it's a really fabulous way to spend your time.

Mary Reyland: And I guess I would say, you know, some of what I hear - reasons for not staying the course or going down a different course - have to do with how they're going to incorporate their lifestyle values. Particularly women that are thinking of having children and how they're going to, how they're going to do this, and they see that it's getting tougher and tougher to get grants. And so they, they may feel more and more vulnerable in a, you know, in a research type career. And so if some of them are opting out for a more, you know, stable, predictable way to use their talents. So, I guess I would just like to express that there, you know, this, as Rolf alluded to earlier, this is really a wonderful career. For parents, you know, there's so much flexibility, I mean, you don't have to, you know, usually you have, most of your time is your time, and you can schedule it as you want. And I think that you have to work hard, but you know, you have to be willing to work hard, maybe other than, you know, nine to five, but it can be done. And I think it can be very rewarding. And, you know, I think all of us who have kids would say, you know, their kids have totally benefited from having this environment and growing up, being in a, you know, a challenging, exciting environment and having, you know, people around them that that kind of espouse those values and the excitement of, of working at this level and of discovering.

Dan Welch: Remember, science is a team sport, everybody contributes and to embrace your colleagues, what they can offer your research, what you can offer, theirs. We're all shooting for the same endpoint. And so that's another way of eliminating that idea that scientists work alone in a dark dank lab, and don't communicate with anybody else. And that's just not true.

Rolf Brekken: I tell early career scientists, especially those in academics, to focus. Pick some of the things that you think are most exciting that you want to make an impact on and do those really well.

Dan Welch: Follow your passion,

Rolf Brekken: You can branch out later. But stay focused on what you're excited about. And don't get pulled in too many directions. It's very easy in academics to get pulled in a lot of directions.

Dan Welch: And follow the data. Because it'll take you in the right direction, as long as you've done the experiment properly. And I remember going to a meeting early in my career. But Judah Folkman, father of angiogenesis, somebody yelled in the room, he's a charlatan. Now we all know angiogenesis is real. But he was considered a charlatan by the leaders in the field, he was just following the data.

Oliver Bogler: So we have two, two and a half days of retreat ahead of us. What are you looking forward to most and don't say ‘it being over’?

Amy Bouton: It was funny, because we were in an executive committee meeting earlier, and many of us were discussing the fact that this was really one of the most fun type of meetings to go to. Because, in a sense, you know, you don't have to clog your brain with all the newest science that you're learning. This is an opportunity for us to hear best practices, to share those with our colleagues to network. I've met some of the people who have become my very closest personal and professional friends through this inter…, through this meeting. So that's what I look forward to is really spending time together and hearing about what different groups find important and new ideas. That's what I really love.

Oliver Bogler: Sounds great.

Rolf Brekken: The dance floor Saturday night will be popping.

[various people talking and laughing]

Mary Reyland: I'm looking forward to interacting with the trainees. It's so exciting. I mean, every trainee we've brought from our institution has just loved it. And some have begged to go again, which of course we don't really, we don't really encourage that because we have a lot of trainees and we want to spread the wealth, but they love this. And they get so much out of it. And they're, you know, sort of starstruck at who they're able to interact with and network with.

Oliver Bogler: So now it's time for a segment that we call Your Turn because it's a chance for our listeners to send in a recommendation that they would like to share. If you're listening, then you're invited to take your turn. Send us a tip for a book or video or podcast, or talk or anything you found inspirational or amusing or interesting. You can send those to us at record a voice memo and send it along. We may just play it in an upcoming episode. Now I'd like to invite our guests to take their turn. Let's start with you, Mary.

Mary Reyland: Well, thank you for asking. I've been thinking a lot about the movie, Oppenheimer since I saw it a while back. And I, I'm sure many of you have already seen it. But I really liked the way it conveyed the excitement, and to some extent, the process of scientific discovery. And it also came … up kind of raised several questions in my mind. One was kind of the ethical question of whether we're responsible for the applications of what we discover. And I think that that in the case of Oppenheimer, it was a very specific goal they had, but in the case of CRISPR, and cloning and all the new technologies, to what extent are we as scientists sort of responsible or, you know, do we need to consider and can we consider all the all the possibilities? I often think that technology gets ahead of sort of the human integration of technology, and we need to consider that. And the last thing I'd say about it, is of course, for most of us, it sort of made us think about the interface of academic freedom, and political goals and the climate of that.

Oliver Bogler: Interesting. Amy, do you ever recommend?

Amy Bouton: Yeah, so I just finished reading The Exceptions about Nancy Hopkins, and her really unique perspective on being a woman in science, not too long ago. And I thought it was really a great book, it's by a woman named Kate Zernike. And I guess, after reading this, I just am so appreciative. I mean, I'm not that much younger than her actually. So appreciative for people like her who have gone ahead of us, and allowed me at least and I'm sure Mary, to be able to be a woman in science who didn't face the challenges that she did. It's very interesting, have you read it?

Oliver Bogler: It's a great book. In fact, I'm just gonna plug the fact that she was a guest on our pod just a few weeks ago, and told us the story of her life, and it was a great conversation. So if you're, if you like the book, I can point you in that direction.

Amy Bouton: Thank you.  

Dan Welch: The most recent book I have read is called The Spacemen. And it details the Apollo eight mission, which was the first one to circumnavigate the moon. And I grew up on the base where those astronauts were trained. So I've always had an interest in that stuff. And I knew quite a few of the challenges. But I also was unaware of many of the risks that they took, that they were willing to do it to advance the science, to advance our place as Americans and that type of thing. And it was inspiring to read and hear. But since it's my turn, I will just say, I made a New Year's resolution years ago, to simply read something non scientific, every day. Because I have 60,000 references in my EndNote database. I am reading science all the time. But to be balanced, it's important to do those other things. And I think we all have to do that a little bit.

Oliver Bogler: I couldn't agree more.

Rolf Brekken: Does Twitter count?.

Dan Welch:117 characters is not quite enough, or whatever it is…

Oliver Bogler: They call it X now. Rolf, you're the last to give us your recommendation.

Rolf Brekken:I'll recommend an older book. But it's not that old. But Rigor Mortis, which I give to every new trainee that comes into my group,

Oliver Bogler: The book, not not rigor mortis?

Rolf Brekken: The book and it's a really easy read. And it really highlights the importance of knowing what you're working with in lab in terms of reagents and tools and, you know, being rigorous and how data that is unrigorous gets propagated and can influence things down the road. And you can think of things in a big scope, but also just in a lab, you know, you can follow data that was done inappropriately and go in directions that aren't all that useful. So I think that's a good, easy reminder, and it's easy to read. Yeah.

Oliver Bogler: Great recommendations, I'm going to add one of my own. It's for a book called Bad Blood: secrets and lies in a Silicon Valley startup. It describes the by now well known story of Theranos and its infamous CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. The book by award winning Wall Street journalist John Carreyrou contains much of the original reporting and it's a real page turner so even if you've heard about the story or read about it, or even watched the Netflix version of it, it's well worth it. It gives you an in depth look at how bad science can get much further than you think it should in the hands of dishonest people and how human the technology industry is actually far cry from how we sometimes think about it. So let me just close by thanking you all for this great conversation. It is a real pleasure and honor to have talked to you about this. Thank you.


Thank you so much. Thank you

Oliver Bogler: That’s all we have time for on today’s episode of Inside Cancer Careers! Thank you for joining us and thank you to our guests.

We want to hear from you – your stories, your ideas and your feedback are always welcome. And you are invited to take your turn to make a recommendation we can share with our listeners. You can reach us at

Inside Cancer Careers is a collaboration between NCI’s Office of Communications and Public Liaison and the Center for Cancer Training.

It is produced by Angela Jones and Astrid Masfar. 

Join us every first and third Thursday of the month when new episodes can be found wherever you listen – subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. I'm your host Oliver Bogler from the National Cancer Institute and I look forward to sharing your stories here on Inside Cancer Careers.  

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We are a production of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. Thanks for listening. 

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