With Faculty Support, Helen Unger Discovers Her Passion for Cancer Research at Stern; Wins Prestigious Award

Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Helen Unger watched her mother battle cancer and initially decided to join the fight by becoming a doctor.

Helen Unger

Helen Unger chose Yeshiva University for its many research opportunities and supportive Torah environment.

Eager to roll up her sleeves and get to work, she graduated high school early and enrolled in pre-med studies at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program—a plan Unger formed in ninth grade.

“I recognized that my situation in public school wasn’t ideal for me,” said Unger. She had recently become religious on her own and struggled to lead an Orthodox lifestyle in a secular world. Unger was anxious to launch her career in cutting-edge science and medicine, but she also longed to expand her understanding of religious Judaism and be part of an environment where its intricacies would be built into daily life.

“I knew I wanted to go to a college where being Jewish wasn’t something I just did on the side,” Unger said. When a little bit of research told her that YU had a high graduate and medical school acceptance rate, she knew she’d found the right place. “I knew that Stern would allow me to focus on excelling in Jewish studies and learning as well as the sciences.’ ”

As a freshman, Unger found her envisioned career path had evolved. Excited by the amount of research opportunities available to undergraduates on campus, she had started work in the breast cancer research laboratory of Dr. Marina Holz, assistant professor of biology. “In Dr. Holz’s laboratory, we work to identify therapeutic targets against which new cancer treatments can be developed,” said Unger. Holz’s problem-solving approach to cancer research fascinated her.

Unger and Holz, right, are working to identify therapeutic targets against which new cancer treatments can be developed.

“I fell in love with research,” Unger said. “I love how it allows scientists to innovate and design new and more effective therapies for disease without the pressure of following clinical protocols. I also like the fact that my work could develop therapies that will help a multitude of patients, not just one at a time.”

As a junior majoring in cellular and molecular biology, Unger was encouraged by Holz to apply for the Thomas J. Bardos Science Education Award for Undergraduate Students. She was recently selected as a winner and is the first YU student to be chosen. The two-year award, given to a handful of students across North America, is intended to inspire young science students to enter the field of cancer research. It provides them with unique educational opportunities in the development of their careers in science and a $1,500 stipend to attend the next two American Association of Cancer Research Annual Meetings, where Unger will have the chance to meet and hear from leading researchers and potentially present her research with Holz.

“I’m looking forward to the award putting me in touch with people who are higher up in the cancer research realm,” Unger said. “It provides me with good contacts and a lot of exposure to what’s going on in research around the world. I’m also excited to represent YU and Orthodox Jewry at the conferences and to show them what we’re all about.”

Unger with Anna Sedletcaia, a postdoctoral fellow in Holz's lab, who assists undergraduates with their research projects.

In addition, Unger recently co-authored an article with Holz and other students which has been published in the January 30, 2012 online edition of Oncogene, a high-impact research journal.

“Helen is a very successful student researcher who has contributed a lot to our work,” Holz said. She added that Unger’s award was an indicator not only of her personal achievement, but the caliber of the science students and faculty at Stern in general.

“Many of our faculty have active research programs which allow us to involve undergrads in our work,” said Holz. “We have real, relevant, nationally-acclaimed, nationally-funded programs and the latest biological and molecular techniques to employ in our labs. The fact Helen won this prestigious national award is a sign that we’re on the same level as any other major research university.” She added: “Helen is the first to win, but more will follow her.”

For Unger, relationships with faculty like Holz were enriching both academically and personally. “Dr. Holz has been a wonderful mentor,” she said. “The professors at Stern are there for you from everything, from your big questions about molecular biology to what kind of shoes you should wear to a conference. It’s like a little family.”

Unger also felt the warm, supportive atmosphere at Stern encouraged students to compete with themselves to do their best, rather than forcing rivalries with other students. “Stern is a small school and that means each student in my biology class is a person, not a number,” she said. “We all want to see each other succeed and get into top graduate schools and I think that’s the best environment for learning.”

Unger credits the warm, supportive atmosphere at Stern for bringing out the best in students.

Holz emphasized Stern’s collaborative approach to science. “When students do research here, they really have a home base,” she said. “They have a lab to come to between classes where they can hang out and get to know professors as they do research together, which allows them to form a personal mentorship with the faculty that leads to more career advancement opportunities and a better-rounded science education.”

This summer Unger will participate in the Sloan-Kettering Summer Undergraduate Research Program, an extremely selective program that gives students opportunities for hands-on research experience in cutting-edge biomedical research laboratories. Next, she hopes to pursue a doctorate at a New York City school—and possibly teach as well.

“I’d love to educate the next generation of scientists,” said Unger. “Biology is the study of life and there are so many things people don’t understand. I’d love to be a role model that could help students with that process.”

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