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Elizabeth Tovar

January 30, 2012

Elizabeth Tovar’s Aunt Thea was lying in her bed, in hospice, covered by a thin white sheet that seemed too heavy for the cancer patient. She was in the last stages of the disease. She labored to breathe. She grabbed Tovar’s hand, and tried to speak, but couldn’t. Tovar had just told her she loved her, and would come see her again soon.

“The woman in the bed that day was not my Aunt Thea. Cancer had taken her,” Tovar said.

At that moment, Tovar’s career path -- and her future -- became clear.

“I decided to focus my efforts on changing those sorrows of the world … in the best way I knew how – continue on with school and contribute to the fight against cancer,” Tovar said.

Tovar is one of five Wayne State University School of Medicine Cancer Biology Graduate Program students awarded the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award, or T32 training grant, from the National Cancer Institute. The grant for pre-doctoral students is worth more than $22,000.

“I was honored to learn I had received a spot on the T32 Training Grant. I'm proud of myself for what I have accomplished thus far, and with this funding I'm confident I will transition from my Ph.D. into a career in the science field,” Tovar said.

Her dissertation mentor, Ken Honn, Ph.D., has long been interested in lipid signaling in cancer. Lipid is a fat, or a fatlike substance. “Signaling” essentially means how one’s diet affects these fats. In her research focus, “Eicosanoid Regulation of Prostate Cancer Progression - Disruption of hemidesmosomes and collaboration in tumor invasive growth,” Tovar hopes to determine how cancer cells in the prostate attain the ability to migrate from one tumor to another site, studying the essential reasons cancer cells can do what they do. Control of cell migration is a key to understanding how cancer cells work, she said.

The Farmington Hills resident is a third-year student in the School of Medicine’s Cancer Biology Graduate program, and the first person in her immediate family to earn a degree in higher education. She has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology, both from Ferris State University.

Tovar looked into graduate schools with cancer biology programs after graduating from Ferris, and chose the WSU School of Medicine because of its prestigious standing and long history of developing budding scientists into top scientific researchers