In 2006 MaKendra Umstead’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Watching her mother progress through treatment—including surgeries and chemotherapy—to being declared “cancer free” raised more questions than it answered. “Searching for answers, and wanting to ask questions of my own, I sought out graduate programs focusing on cancer research,” she says.
Now a 5th-year doctoral student in Laney’s Cancer Biology program, Umstead recalls why Laney emerged as her top choice.
"Laney had the most intriguing research opportunities. There were several professors who, from their research descriptions and actually meeting them during recruitment, I could see as mentors. Second, I wanted to focus on Cancer Biology, and Laney’s program was rare. Third, Atlanta is a wonderful city where I can balance a social life with my academic endeavors."
For her dissertation research, Umstead joined a cancer pharmacology laboratory led by Dr. Haian Fu. Her work focuses on the role of protein-protein interactions in cancer development. Umstead explains, “Cancer is a disease of altered cellular signaling events. Protein-protein interactions serve as the backbone of most cellular signaling events; therefore, to understand more about how altered signaling events confer a cancer phenotype, we must first understand how genomic changes alter the protein interaction network in cancer cells.”
The Laney Advantage
Of particular importance to Umstead as she prepares for her career is Pathways Beyond the Professoriate, a speaker series that engages Laney alumni who have used their PhDs to great success in careers other than tenure-track positions.
In Umstead’s view, “Pathways is crucial for students to learn about the many opportunities that there are for PhDs beyond what is seen as the traditional path. From starting a business to writing a book, from working in industry to teaching in high school, we are exposed to people whose PhDs have led to fulfilling careers that were the right fit for them.”
While Umstead maps out her professional journey, she has the destination clearly in mind, saying, “I want to use my passion for cancer research, teaching, and entrepreneurship to improve the lives of others.”