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Freshman helps with groundbreaking cancer research

Freshman helps with groundbreaking cancer research

April 11, 2024 at 9:00am

Baylee Holcomb has accomplished, at only 19 years old, what many scientists spend years dreaming about: Having research she participated in published in a major, high-impact academic journal.

The FIU Honors College student majoring in chemistry within the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, now a sophomore, spent her freshman year in the lab of FIU cancer researcher Diana Azzam, assisting with a groundbreaking clinical trial that successfully guided treatment for hard-to-treat, relapsed pediatric cancers. The results of that trial were recently published in Nature Medicine.

Now, Holcomb is now sharing how she got a jump start on her research career as an undergraduate, what skills she’s taking away from this experience and what she hopes to do next.

What do you study at FIU?

When I first joined Dr. Azzam’s lab, I was majoring in environmental engineering.

Once I fell in love with Dr. Azzam's research, though, I changed my major to chemistry. 

Chemistry is directly applicable to the work we do in the lab, specifically to the drug sensitivity testing that we perform on patient tumor samples. For example, my knowledge of chemistry has helped me understand the way chemotherapy drugs work within the tumor samples and gain a deeper appreciation for the basic science principles underlying the techniques we perform.  

How did you start working in Dr. Azzam’s lab? 

I started my undergraduate research journey by going to a Stempel College event for the FIU Honors College.

When I realized that the presentations were about research in public health, this further piqued my interest, as I had been passionate about getting involved in research since I started at FIU.

After listening to Dr. Azzam present on the clinical trial she was working on with Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, alongside other projects occurring in her lab, I then got the opportunity to tour the lab and learn more firsthand about their research process. After the tour, I knew I wanted to be a part of the lab and help with such meaningful work and the clinical trial. 

"Learning about Dr. Azzam’s research reignited my childhood dream of curing cancer."

My grandfather had multiple myeloma and fought his cancer for six years. He relapsed multiple times before eventually succumbing to the disease.

I was young when he died, but I knew then that I wanted to help find the cure for cancer. Then, as I became older, I drifted away from that dream until I started working in Dr. Azzam’s lab.  

Learning about the direct impact that Dr. Azzam’s research has on the lives of cancer patients solidified my decision to pursue cancer research.  

Many scientists dream about publishing a paper in a prestigious journal. What does it feel like to be a part of such a major paper as an undergraduate?

It’s completely unreal.

I feel so incredibly lucky that I was able to be a contributing author to this paper. I am speechless and astonished that I was able to be published in Nature Medicine, one of the most prestigious journals in the world.

What is one thing you will never forget about your experience helping with this study?

Meeting Logan [a young cancer patient] was one of my favorite parts of this experience because it allowed me to see the success of the clinical trial.

I first met Logan when he was touring the lab with his mother in January. He was smiling and laughing, telling us about his recent trip to Disney and how much fun he had with his mom.

Knowing that the work we are doing contributed to the fact that he can continue to make memories with his mother was so heartwarming. This was an incredibly rewarding experience. I was able to directly see the impact and importance of the work we are doing.

It showed me that all of the long hours and hard work were completely worth it.

I always knew that the work we are doing in the lab helps people, but it adds an extra special element to meet one of the people we have helped.

What did you get out of contributing to this research and being on this paper that you hope to take with you to other opportunities?

Contributing to this research has taught me a multitude of valuable skills and lessons that I will take with me.

When I started at the Azzam Lab, I had no lab experience, so everything was new to me. I learned how to think critically and persevere when experiments don’t go according to plan. I have also gained a lot of hands-on experience with different experimental techniques, which gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the research process.

I have gained a deep sense of accomplishment from seeing that my work has the potential to help others. Overall, the experience and skills I have gained at the Azzam Lab have been invaluable and have motivated me to continue to pursue research.