Passion to Cures: Mentor – Mentee Power Duo
September 07, 2023
UH Research & Education Update | September 2023
Being a physician-scientist takes work! Kristen VanHeyst, DO, admits many people don’t see the hurdles that physician-scientists face daily. What keeps her going is the positivity, optimism, unconditional support from family and mentors, and, most importantly, the trust and smiling faces of many of her osteosarcoma patients.
The Research Journey
Inspired by her RN mom, Kristen knew at a young age that she wanted to practice medicine to make a difference by helping people. During her residency at Stony Brook Children's Hospital, she got her first research opportunity in Dr. Edward Chan's lab. It was such a great experience that it led to her decision to pursue a Pediatric Hematology/Oncology fellowship, where she focused on a research project for the last two years.
Dr. VanHeyst joined the UH Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Fellowship program in 2016, which is when she met Alex Huang, MD, PhD, the fellowship program director. The two instantly clicked as she figured out her academic endeavor when Alex shared his osteosarcoma project. This project would be a great clinical trial if only he had someone to write the proposal. Despite her inexperience in writing a clinical trial proposal, Dr. VanHeyst thought, "I can do that!"
Osteosarcoma is the most prevalent aggressive primary malignancy of the bone, affecting children and young adults. Although the treatment of osteosarcoma has come a long way, overall outcomes, particularly for patients with metastatic disease or relapsed disease, are poor. Dr. Huang and Dr. VanHeyst believe there are still better ways to treat kids with fewer side effects and more success. “My grant proposals have been rejected before, but I use the criticism from these proposals to fuel tweaks in the lab experiment or in future grant proposals to improve for the next application.”
With the support and encouragement of Dr. Huang, Dr. VanHeyst became a clinical trial Principal Investigator (PI) for the first time. She is the PI of a phase II clinical trial that uses a form of immunotherapy and a drug called Natalizumab to treat pulmonary osteosarcoma here at UH. This project was the focus of her fellowship and resulted in a Hyundai Hope on Wheels Young Investigator award and a K12 Clinical Oncology Research Grant.
We congratulate Dr. VanHeyst on receiving two recently awarded grants, the CureSearch Young Investigator Award, and the CURE Childhood Cancer Early Investigator Award. These awards will fund various efforts of a specific project aiming to target TGF-ß, which is a product of osteosarcoma cells in the tumor microenvironment. Through a partnership with MedPacto, a South Korean-based pharmaceutical company, Drs. Huang and VanHeyst's team enabled Orphan Drug Disease status for osteosarcoma and FDA fast-track designation for this drug. Dr. VanHeyst will lead the phase I and II clinical trial using the drug as monotherapy for patients (> = 14 years) with any osteosarcoma, refractory, relapsed or progressive disease. UH Rainbow will be the lead site for this multi-centered trial.
Looking into the Future
"Physician-scientists are uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between practicing clinicians and biomedical scientists, and I feel privileged to be one of them," said Dr. VanHeyst. "I enjoy working with patients by offering them the cutting-edge clinical trials that are available at UH, but it is equally important for me to continue working in the lab so I understand the background of the trials with the hope to translate lab work to a clinical setting."
As for the future, Dr. VanHeyst wants to continue sharing the work here at Rainbow with a broader medical academic community by speaking at more conferences. She would also like to expand her work to include more solid tumors because many of the lab's concepts concerning osteosarcoma can be applied to other solid tumors.
Wisdom from the Mentor
“Strengthening the personal relationship between mentor and mentee based on trust and mutual respect is key to success,” states Dr. Huang. “A mentor needs to focus more on role modeling and inspiring through actions rather than words. It takes self-confidence and self-assurance on the part of the mentor to shine the spotlight of praise and success on the mentee rather than the mentor. Still, such selfless acts by the mentor are the secret ingredient to a successful and rewarding mentor-mentee relationship.”
Dr. Huang added, “We are doing well in recruiting and inspiring young talents to join our ranks. However, we are not doing a good job of sustaining the momentum and successes of our mentees by investing in the continued growth and retention of talents past the initial junior faculty period. It is important and necessary to value and champion the effort and contribution of our mentees and find ways to promote them so they feel appreciated as key members of our academic community.”
Advice for New Junior Faculty
When asked for advice from junior faculty interested in starting a research journey, Dr. VanHeyst states, “Don’t convince yourself something is right when you know it is not, and choose a great mentor.”
“A great mentor is someone willing to put in time and work to teach you what you need to know to succeed. I’m very blessed to have Dr. Huang as my mentor. He is a leader who invests time, resources, contacts and acts like a proud parent. The work that I’m doing wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Alex and the lab.”
Dr. Huang advises junior faculty to keep doing what they are doing. “Surround yourself with mentors and colleagues whom you admire not only the intellect and knowledge they possess but their values, character, philosophy, morals, and ethical standards.” In addition, Dr. Huang believes it is important to be humble and quick to give credit to others and to learn to cultivate curiosity and uphold the highest scientific and academic standards without compromise.
Mentor-Mentee FIVE IN FIVE!
- What is the last movie or TV series you watched? The Lincoln Lawyer (Mentee) vs. Oppenheimer (Mentor)
- Where is your favorite place to go in Cleveland? Anywhere outside with my family (Mentee) vs. Walk around my own neighborhood (Mentor)
- What is your favorite place to eat in Cleveland? Crew Uncorked (Mentee) vs. Wonton Gourmet (Mentor)
- Coffee or tea? Tea (Mentee) vs. Coffee (Mentor)
- How would your colleagues describe you in 3 words? Energetic, happy and thorough (Mentee) vs. Thoughtful, unafraid, helpful (Mentor)