Melony Ochieng: A Thomas J. Bardos Science Education Award winner reflects on her first AACR Meeting

Apr 20 2011 Published by under Meeting Presentations, Reflections

NCCU RISE Scholar Melony Ochieng is currently a junior at North Carolina Central University where she is a double major in Pharmaceutical Sciences and Chemistry. She is currently the president of the NCCU student chapter of the American Chemical Society and a coordinator of Women Inspiring Learning Momentum, a mentoring program for middle-school girls.

Melony Ochieng. Photo: Nzingha Saunders
Melony Ochieng
Photo: Nzingha Saunders

Aside from her leadership positions, she is currently working on developing a drug delivery system for breast cancer under the guidance of Dr. Darlene Taylor in the Department of Chemistry. In addition to her NCCU experiences, Melony has interned at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill doing research in biophysics, at the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznan, Poland, doing research in photophysics and photochemistry in conjunction with Dr. Stefan Franzen, North Carolina State University.  This coming summer she will intern at The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

In this post, Melony journals her experience at the 102nd Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). Melony competed in the undergraduate research caucus as a 2011-2012 AACR-Thomas J. Bardos Science Education Awardee. (Background on Dr. Bardos and his named award can be found here.) Melony's project with Dr. Taylor was to synthesize a nanoparticle conjugate of the poorly-soluble breast cancer drug, fulvestrant, to enhance selective delivery of the active compound.

Friday, April 1st - Saturday April 2nd: It is 1:30 AM and I finally made it to Orlando, Florida, for the 102nd American Association for Cancer Research meeting. The journey here was by far the most treacherous one ever and it all started with my mentor, Dr. Darlene Taylor, asking what conferences I wanted to attend this year about two months ago. When she asked me this question I gave her the easiest answer which was, I wanted to attend the AACR meeting. (For some really odd reason Dr. Taylor had this Thomas J. Bardos award poster hanging in her lab for as long as I can remember). She would pay for me to go but we decided that it would be better if I won a travel award, specifically the Thomas J. Bardos Science Education Award. Thus, my journey started.

The first thing I had to do was look up the eligibility requirements to apply and I met all the criteria except one. To fulfill all the requirements, I needed to be an AACR member. To become a student member (which is free) you have get an endorsement from a current active member. I did not know who was an AACR member so I started asking around until I found that Dr. Antonio Baines [another NCCU RISE mentor] was one and he agreed to support my application. With his support I turned in my Thomas J. Bardos application and waited for the response. I couple of weeks later I found out that I was one of 17 students this year who won and that I would be attending the conference and was welcomed to present my poster.

Given the fact that this was a huge conference, Dr. Taylor and I wanted to present a really good paper. Hence, my sleepless nights started since I had so much schoolwork and now research. As with research, I had so many problems that I missed the deadline and had to ask for an extension. Finally I had the synthesis done and under the supervision of Dr. Kroll's lab, specifically Audrey Adcock, and Dr. Sexton’s lab I was able to complete my cell studies and I obtained my results on Thursday. Given the fact that I was flying out on Friday, I spend the whole night making my poster and packing. On Friday I skipped classes to get the proofread the poster and then went to the airport.

As we were driving the airport I got a message saying that my flight was delayed by one hour. To me that was fine since I had five manuscripts that I had to read to help me get my poster story straight. One hour later we found out that our plane was canceled due to the snow in Boston and that the flight was rescheduled for tomorrow. We would arrive in Orlando at 1:36 PM on Saturday. However, my poster was at 11:00 AM. After all the work I had done I did not want to miss the poster competition so I talked the lady at the Delta desk and she gave me a first class ticket to Orlando. With the extra room in first class I was able to read comfortably. I landed at 1:00 AM and took a taxi for $40.00 to the hotel.

Lesson Learned: No one can control the weather so being mad at the front desk people does not guarantee you a seat in another plane. So be nice (I think all those loud people are still at the airport).

The Orange County Convention Center, Orlando, FL. Photo: Melony Ochieng

Saturday April 2nd: To accommodate the 18,000 people from 70 different countries who submitted 5,921 abstracts, the conference schedule is packed. The book of abstracts alone weighs 5 lbs including all the supplements, my bag weighed about ten lbs. The undergraduate student caucus and poster competition was held at the Peabody Orlando Hotel and it was supposed to start at 11:00 AM and run until 5:00 P.M. The first place winner would receive $1,500, second $300, and third place $200.

Given the fact that the competition was in a another building, I decided to to leave early and get there by 9 AM. Apparently everybody else had the same idea and since everybody was there I decided to go and look around. From hearing other people present, I decided that I had no chance whatsoever to place and the best I could hope for was honorable mention.

At 11:00 AM, the opening ceremony started with the history of AACR and the explanation of the different sessions that were going on. After the introduction ended, we took our positions and waited for judges to come by. For me personally, I found that the judges were really nice and very helpful. The one I had even gave me suggestions as to where I should go to graduate school.

At my poster with another NCCU RISE mentor, Dr. Antonio Baines, Department of Biology and the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute (JLC-BBRI).

After 2 hours of presentation, the poster session ended and we had a panel discussion that was chaired by Dr. Antonio Baines. In the panel we had a graduate student, a surgical oncologist, an MD/PhD student, and a program director from NCI.

After the panel discussion they announced the winner of the poster competition in which I placed third.

After the poster competition, we went to the Bardos meet-and-greet where we had the members of the AACR Science Education Committee, Award Selection Committee, and invited guest speakers to answer our questions about the meeting or the cancer field. The invited guests were the current AACR president [and telomerase Nobel laureate] Elizabeth Blackburn and past-president Tyler Jacks (at the time we did not what their positions were).

During the lunch, we had a chance to introduce ourselves and know the other Bardos awardees. Through the introduction, I found that one of the awardee, Auri, will be at the Broad institute with me this summer.

Sunday April 3rd: The Sunday session started at 7:00 AM and I did not wake up early enough to go. However, I made it to the 8:15 award presentation and plenary session. The awards they were giving out were; Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research, The Team Science Award, and The Margaret Foti Award for Leadership, and The Extraordinary Achievement Award. There were six people who presented the state of research in their respective fields.

After the plenary session, we went back to meet Dr. Kathleen Scotto who is the Vice President of Research and Interim Dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. She basically told gave us insight on how to become an administrator in academia. [Dr. Scotto also studies the transcriptional regulation of the multidrug resistance efflux pump, MDR1.]

After that I went to the AACR-Minority in Cancer Research (MICR) group meeting where I met the few minorities who were represented at the conference. The people there were really open to answering questions. After talking to them for a while, we went to the poster session and talked to a lot of people who were doing research in my field. We left the convention at around 10:00 PM and then went downtown to enjoy the night life of Florida.

The massive AACR exhibit floor. Photo: Melony Ochieng

Monday April 4th: The AACR Science Education Committee sponsors a program for high school students where Science Education Awardees are asked to participate and matched with senior and junior scientists to serve as mentors to participating high school students. The students mainly come from surrounding states except for a few who came from Korea. As a junior mentee, my job was mainly answering questions about college life. I really enjoyed taking the students to the vendors and posters and finally eating lunch. After the lunch we had a round table sponsored by the AACR-Minorities in Cancer Research and a Professional Advancement Reception on career development and professional advancement topics, including relevant topics for undergraduate students. A lot to students asked a lot of questions that I have never really thought of.

Out of all the panels we had, I really liked this one the best since they had so many different topics that you could attend. Personally I attended ones on how to prepare for graduate school and how to improve on your negotiation and management skills.

After the roundtable we went to a sponsored dance where we had fun watching scientists dance.

Tuesday April 5th: The last day for me was Tuesday, so I woke up at 7 AM to pack since my flight was leaving at 8 PM. However, I needed to check out by 11 AM. We checked out at 9 AM and took the shuttle to the convention center. I went to the drug delivery, drug metabolism, drug design and lead optimization poster sessions. They were really insightful and engaging since I was able to discuss my research with other people, especially on troubleshooting.

After the poster sessions, I went to meet Marcia Cruz-Correa MD, PhD,  Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico Cancer Center. Her research focuses on genetics and epidemiology of colorectal cancer, hereditary colon cancer syndromes, development of endoscopic techniques for the diagnosis and surveillance of premalignant lesions in the gastrointestinal tract. She basically gave us advice on applying to medical school and graduate school.

After we met her, we went to a luncheon where had an opportunity to discuss our future goals with the other awardees as well as hear invited guest talks about life experiences. After the lunch, most of the awardees left since they had planes to catch while I went to an NIH-sponsored session entitled, "Technology transfer and intellectual property: Financial and career opportunities for researchers." I really learned a lot about alternative paths that I could take once I obtain my terminal degree.

Overall this has been one of the biggest conferences I've attended and the most informative one. It really opened my eyes to alternative pathways that I could take for my future as well as reassured me that making mistakes along the way is okay. After all, we are not terminally differentiated cells.

The 2011-2012 AACR-Thomas J. Bardos Science Education Awardees.

Ed. note: The program mentor mentioned above by Melony, Dr. Antonio Baines, also won his own award, the AACR Minority-Serving Institution Faculty Scholar Award, as detailed in this NCCU news article by Myra Wooten.

5 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Wow. Nice set of accomplishments. Glad to see you are getting such excellent mentor support in trying to determine your next steps in career.

    (pssst, the Neurosciences offer many fascinating and satisfying pharmacological scientific domains for investigation. Just sayin...)

  • daniel says:

    wish all the best in your research. hope we will be able to get a cure soon.

  • Imad Ahmad says:

    Wowwwwwwwww, this was impressive. I like the pretty pictures. A couple of details were left out I might say, but other than that this was excellentttt. Must've been stressful. Actually, I know it was stressful. I'm glad you were successful in wooing the crowd.

    Hope to find a cure soon!!!!

  • Congrats on the awards! And on getting to fly first class!

    Btw - don't listen to Drugmonkey, he doesn't know anything about anything. Physiology is where it's at.

  • Melony Ochieng says:

    Thank you all for the well wishes!!!!!!!!! To all, I am keeping my options open for now