Signaling (career) pathways
When students first met post-doctoral stream leader Gennie “Gen” Parkman in the Science Research Initiative (SRI), they likely did not know the backstory to that auspicious moment.
Auspicious not only because by design the celebrated SRI places first-year students in real science research, but because they were in the lab with someone who knows what it means to persist against tough odds before finding yourself in your career “happy place.”
Now an assistant professor at Weber State University with her own lab, Gen journeyed from her home state of Missouri where she was in a pre-admit program with Saint Louis University School of Medicine to the University of Utah and not entirely sure if a physician’s life was in her future or if there was something else rising above the jagged skyline of the Wasatch Mountains.
That was when, due to severe injuries, she had to face down the human body in medical terms: her own body.
What started as a dicey, harrowing experience with Gen’s health turned out to be a portal for her to that something else. “I knew I loved the human body, but I was also interested in understanding the deeper cellular and molecular processes,” she says. At the U she started as a technician for Jeffrey Weiss’ lab in the Musculoskeletal Research Laboratories as well as for Mahesh Chandrasekharan at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). In 2015 she was technician in Sheri Holmen’s lab where she “absolutely fell in love with cancer biology,” and soon embarked on a PhD program at the U’s HCI in oncological sciences.
Last spring (2023) she transitioned from a post-doctoral researcher in the Holmen lab to a post-doc in the SRI where she led her own research stream titled “Functional Validation of Potential Cancer Targets” filled with those lucky students who didn’t know yet that they were witnesses of (and participants in) an extraordinary encounter.
“For many, many years,” Gen recalls about her arduous journey back into health, “I didn’t know if I ever would be able to complete school and make an impact with my career. It was during that time that I knew I wanted to teach in some capacity and mentor students through the ups and downs of life to reach their dreams.”
Part of that mentoring in the SRI stream she conducted was research that is vividly relevant. “Utah,” she reminds us, “has the nation’s highest melanoma rate, and it is the third most common diagnosed cancer in our state (preceded only by prostate and breast cancer). It is so important to study this disease to improve the health of our community!” That she was able to include first-year undergraduate students at the bench in her lab proved not only transformative for her students but astounding to Gen. (More on that later.)
Utilizing in vitro models, Gen’s research is focused on understanding more about the genetic alterations associated with a heterogeneous disease like melanoma. Those alterations involve the BRAF gene which provides instructions for making a protein that helps transmit chemical signals from outside the cell to the cell's nucleus. (This protein is part of a signaling pathway known as the RAS/MAPK pathway, which controls several important cell functions.) In BRAF mutant melanoma, alterations can be downgraded or upgraded and effect proliferation, invasion, and migration of cancer cells.
In her new lab at Weber State this research to evaluate tumor initiation and progression in mouse models continues.
Fresh out of SRI, Gen Parkman now recalls fondly her time in the College of Science and has this to say to an eager set of budding scientists: “If you continue to push and work hard, there are opportunities everywhere to be sought, and I am beyond grateful for the opportunities that I have been granted, such as by mentors and in the Science Research Initiative with such a supportive and encouraging team, to make it to this point in my career.”
“My students continue to blow me away with their passion and perseverance.”
By David Pace
SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science, intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.