Setting the Course

Guest Post by Matthew J. Sikora, PhD
University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute

If you asked me how I got in to cancer research, I would laugh and tell you that it was an accident. As a college freshman, I applied to work in three different labs, and a lab studying head and neck cancer was the only one that would interview me—at least I had an easy decision when that lab offered me a position. As for why I’ve stayed in cancer research—that is a much more interesting story.

The lab that I joined ended up being my research home all throughout undergrad. By my junior year, I was starting to look at graduate programs, and was considering options across many biomedical disciplines. Around the same time, my mentor encouraged me to apply for an award from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). This particular awards program, the AACR-Thomas J. Bardos Science Education Awards for Undergraduate Students, funds undergrads to attend the AACR Annual Meeting during their junior and senior years. Undergrads rarely, if ever, attend national meetings due to costs, and I normally would have been no exception. However, I was extremely fortunate to receive one of these awards, and was able to attend my first scientific meeting in 2005.

Sikora, left, receives his Bardos Award at the AACR Annual Meeting 2005. Thomas J. Bardos, PhD, for whom the award is named, is in the center.

Sikora, left, receives his Bardos Award at the AACR Annual Meeting 2005. Thomas J. Bardos, PhD, for whom the award is named, is in the center.

I went to the Annual Meeting with a lot of options on my mind for my research life after undergrad. After the meeting, there was no question whatsoever that I was going to continue on in cancer research. Even at my first meeting, I took home things that I now look forward to at meetings like our Gordon Research Conference—excitement for research, thirst for new knowledge, and a passion for improving the health of cancer patients. At the time, seeing things like this at the meeting inspired me to work in the field. Since then, I’ve recognized that lab research, quite frankly, is very hard. Much of what we do as scientists is failure—a failed experiment, a flawed hypothesis, a rejected grant—but the thrill that those few successes bring, and sharing that thrill with your colleagues, makes it more than worthwhile. I learned how important meetings are, not only to network and learn about new research, but also to get new perspectives, share your ideas with peers, and re-energize yourself for the work to come.

The biggest takeaway I had from that first meeting was from a patient advocate who was introducing an award lecture. She thanked everyone for the hard work that we do in the lab—even as an undergrad, I beamed with pride at that, and that feeling has stayed with me since. Then she asked the attendees to repeat after her: “I can’t do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good that I can do.” That quote, and her profound sincerity in saying it with us, has etched itself into my research soul, and I try to live by it every day in the lab. You’ll even find that quote on the dedication page of my graduate dissertation.

So much of a student’s research training is in the lecture hall or at the bench, and for obvious reason. However, there is a lot to being a scientist that simply can’t be learned in the lab, and filling those gaps is what scientific meetings and conferences accomplish. I might not be the scientist that I am today—I might not be dedicated to making the lives of cancer patients better—if not for that first travel grant 10 years ago.

Matthew J. Sikora, PhD.

Matthew J. Sikora, PhD.

Matthew J. Sikora, PhD, did his undergraduate studies and graduate work in pharmacology at the University of Michigan, and is a proud 2005-2006 Bardos Science Education Award alumnus. He is currently a postdoctoral associate at the Women’s Cancer Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. His research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of action of hormones and endocrine therapies in breast cancer. Sikora has been a member of the AACR since 2005.

Sikora is working to make sure that more young scientists can share experiences like his though travel grants. You can learn more about this project at Follow him on Twitter at @mjsikora.

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