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For Monica Olcina and Ryan Kim, tackling cancer is all about complementing each other

Postdoc Monica Olcina and Ryan Kim BS ’17 speak about their work in enhancing patient responses to radiation, their collaboration, and the importance of medical research.

Cancer Research Institute Irvington Postdoctoral Fellow Monica Olcina and research technician Ryan Kim ’17 work together in the lab of Amato Giaccia, professor emeritus of radiation oncology, researching ways to improve radiation treatments. In 2016, Olcina mentored Kim through the Stanford ChEM-H Undergraduate Scholars Program, an initiative that pairs undergraduates with postdoctoral researchers who provide mentorship and guidance as they pursue an independent research project in a research area complementary to their chosen major. After graduating in 2017, Kim returned to the lab to do full-time research. He will start medical school this fall. Here, they speak about their work in enhancing patient responses to radiation, how their collaboration has evolved, and the importance of medical research.

Photo of Monica Olcina and Ryan Kim

Rebecca McClellan: Can you tell me a little about your research?

Monica Olcina: The goal of our research is to improve radiation treatments for cancer, both in improving the tumor response to the treatment and in minimizing the side effects. When I joined the lab one of the first things I did was to look at the things that were highly expressed in tumors and not in normal tissues. One part of the immune system, called the complement system, kept popping up. I thought maybe if you target that, you could have a big effect on tumors without having a detrimental effect on healthy tissue.

RM: Why did you decide to participate in the ChEM-H Undergraduate Scholars Program, as a mentor or mentee?

MO: Before participating in the Undergraduate Scholars Program, I was already involved in the ChEM-H Postdoc Society and other events. I was really drawn to the ethos behind ChEM-H, this idea of fostering multidisciplinary research and collaborations. When I heard about this program, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to pass on this ideal of multidisciplinary research and to gain mentoring experience.

Ryan Kim: I didn’t have any prior lab experience. The ChEM-H Undergraduate Scholars Program allows you to have an independent project over the summer, which seemed like a great way to get started in research and gain independence. I was surprised by how many different projects were going on in the lab. It was interesting that while I was working with Monica and learning about her project, the people on either side of me were working on completely different things. I think it’s really unique to bring people from different backgrounds together to collaborate. You can see problems from different angles.

RM: What is it like working together? Has it changed as Ryan has gotten more experience?

MO: Ryan was a natural. I’m so glad he joined the lab. In the beginning, we focused a lot on learning what being in a research lab is like, showing him how to do things and taking him to seminars. It was great that he decided to stay in the lab through his senior year and after he graduated, both because the research was going so well and to extend this mentoring experience. It has been beneficial in so many ways, from providing a fresh perspective, to helping with the work, to bringing a positive attitude to the lab.

RM: Ryan, why did you decide to go to medical school?

RK: I have been doing Taekwondo since I was four years old, so growing up I had hip problems and knee injuries and I would see my orthopedist a lot. That got me thinking, “Oh it’s neat what this doctor does, helping athletes recover. That seems like something I’d be interested in.” That, combined with my interest in science and biology, made me head down this path.

RM: Do you think your experience in lab will impact your career in medicine?

RK: Midway through undergrad I began to feel like if I became a sports medicine orthopedist, I would be missing something. Joining the lab and doing this research contributed to that feeling.

Before joining the lab, I hadn’t even considered doing research in medical school and after I graduate. But now I see that it’s really important to be up to date, to know how research is done, and you know exactly what you’re telling your patient, especially in oncology. I definitely want to stay involved in lab work, especially translational or clinical research.

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