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A Cancer Research Career Sparked by a Diagnosis of Her Own

AnnaLynn Williams, PhD—St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Tennessee

After her cancer diagnosis, Dr. AnnaLynn Williams focused her career on cancer research with the support of several NCI early-career development awards.

Credit: Photo courtesy of AnnaLynn Williams, Ph.D.

AnnaLynn Williams, Ph.D., was a 22-year-old graduate student pursuing a career in clinical research when she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). She underwent treatment for 3 years, including a bone marrow transplant. After reading the consent form before the transplant, she had more questions than her doctor could answer. “The idea that the very treatments that were saving my life were likely going to cause a whole host of issues later on in life—that hadn’t occurred to me,” she recalled. “I started to dig deeper, and that’s where I found my passion.”

With her cancer in remission, AnnaLynn returned to the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, inspired to focus her research on oncology. While pursuing her master’s degree and Ph.D. in cancer epidemiology and encouraged by a mentor, she applied for several NCI career development awards. She was thrilled to receive the NCI Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award (F99/K00), which supports outstanding Ph.D. and other research doctoral candidates. “Having this training award allowed me to focus on the science I wanted to focus on and gain experience and training in cancer control research,” she noted. “Going into the postdoctoral stage with the award provided me a lot of autonomy that most postdoctoral investigators don’t have.”

As AnnaLynn was moving to a postdoctoral position at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, her program officer at NCI encouraged her to consider the NIH Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00), which provides mentored training and helps early-career investigators develop the skills to establish a strong, independent research program. She used her initial F99/K00 award to take a short course in epigenetics that better prepared her to write a successful K99/R00 grant application.

AnnaLynn’s K99/R00 award focuses on the early and late effects of Hodgkin lymphoma and its treatment in adolescent and young adult survivors, including accelerated aging processes that may lead to neurocognitive impairment. “The cancer treatments we’ve given young people have sent them on a unique biological aging trajectory. We shifted them off the path they would have been on if they’d never had cancer,” AnnaLynn explained. “We think some of that early biological and physiological aging that we see in this population group is also contributing to premature cognitive aging.” Her grant focuses on associations between age-related biomarkers and neurocognitive function.

AnnaLynn’s commitment to help survivors of adolescent and young adult cancers remains strong, and she is grateful for the opportunities provided by the NCI career development awards she received. “I got into survivorship research because I myself am a survivor. I just want to help cancer patients and survivors not only make it through treatment but live healthy and full lives afterward.”

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