ACCESS: A Tale of Two REsearchers


The first thing Isabella Scalise noticed when she joined the 2022 ACCESS Scholars program was a feeling of empowerment. How could she not?

Surrounded by a cohort of ambitious scientists-in-training, and under the supervision of women ecstatic to help her find success in her passions, Isabella was taking a huge step in realizing her middle school dream of conducting cancer research.

Wide-eyed middle schooler

It all started with her grandpa’s colon cancer diagnosis. Isabella, a wide-eyed middle schooler at the time, was driven to learn as much as she could. She started taking a cancer and genetics class at Providence Cancer Institute during the summer and found a particular interest in precision medicine, which accounts for an individual’s genetics, environment and lifestyle when crafting a game plan to fight diseases — like cancer. This interest only grew after starting at the U when another family member started experiencing resistance to therapies targeted to treat her cancer.

When it came time to join a lab, an integral part of the ACCESS experience, the Kinsey lab at the Huntsman Cancer Institute made perfect sense.

“The scientific questions being pursued in the Kinsey lab deeply resonate with me,” says Isabella, now a sophomore studying honors biology with minors in mathematics and chemistry. “We work to overcome primary resistance mechanisms to targeted treatments.”

And who was waiting there with open arms, ready to mentor Isabella? A 2017 ACCESS alum.

A Life-Changing Lab

Sophia Schuman describes her ACCESS experience as “eye-opening.” She discovered the program while searching for scholarships and found herself spending the summer of 2017 with a cohort of 24 women, already passionate about Sophia’s interests.

Isabella (left) with Sophia, in the lab together. ^^ Banner photo above: Sophia (left) with Isabella.

"You got to go to college early, live on campus, get exposed to all the sciences. I applied immediately, and I was so excited to hear back,” Sophia explains. “It was the driving force, the reason that I came to the U. I didn't have issues finding my classes on the first day of school because I had already been here, and it felt like this was home a little bit.”

Sophia wasn’t placed in the Kinsey lab, but she says Conan Kinsey, MD, PhD, principal investigator of the lab, found her and “changed my life forever.”

Like Isabella, Sophia had a personal connection to cancer as she had watched someone close to her fight pancreatic cancer. Sophia was amazed by how well the patient’s body held up during the experience, which piqued her own interest in cancer research and drew her to the lab.

“The Kinsey lab brought me into so many different opportunities,” she continues, “but it also taught me so much about how to think, how to be a professional in the industry.”

Part of that professional experience included mentoring, which is where Isabella comes into the equation.

A holistic understanding

The pair combined their shared passion to perform research on autophagy, a primary resistance mechanism to targeted therapies for pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). During this time, Isabella learned the details and mechanisms behind the procedures they performed, learned how to derive the right scientific questions from their work and even came to understand how the work they were doing fit into the big picture. Along the way, Sophia would send Isabella educational materials that helped her develop a holistic understanding of the science.

“I always felt comfortable asking Sophia questions. She’d always take the time to answer them very thoroughly and when I made mistakes, making sure I learned from them. I've never felt ashamed for making a mistake.”

Isabella said that working under Sophia’s guidance created a comfort in the lab, and Sophia seemed to enjoy it just as much.

“Isabella came in very interested, very teachable and obviously passionate about the work behind it. As well, it was fun having another woman in the lab. I saw a lot in her that I saw in myself. She's willing to stay until the work is done. She asked a lot of really good, intuitive questions, even from the get-go with having very basic concepts and understanding of science.”

The duo no longer works together, but they’ll always be connected by the Kinsey lab, a shared love for research, and ACCESS Scholars.

By Seth Harper