Jonathan Irish visited his uncle’s physics lab as a child. He helped set up a few basic experiments for fun, and watched a superconductor sample float above a magnet, cooled with liquid nitrogen.
“Seeing it levitate and remain there in front of me, above a bench? That hooked me,” he said.
The visit was only a few hours, but it made a lasting impression. It was his first glance at laboratory science, and he remained fascinated throughout elementary and secondary school thanks to great teachers, he said.
Irish is now a third-year student in the Wayne State University School of Medicine’s Cancer Biology Graduate Program. He’s using the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award, or T32 training grant, he secured from the National Cancer Institute to study the role epigenetics play in breast cancer -- in a lab, of course. The grant for pre-doctoral students is worth $22,000 every year.
He is co-mentored by Zengquan Yang, Ph.D., assistant professor of Oncology, and Stephen Ethier, Ph.D., voluntary professor of Oncology.
“My motivation for studying cancer is both humanitarian and personal, although on a personal level, the motivation comes from a natural curiosity in something so complex as the field of cancer research,” Irish said.
The lab he trains in studies oncogenes in breast cancer. Oncogenes are those that cause cancer to become malignant. “It is incredibly interesting, and because it affects most of us, or will at some point in our lives, it is important,” he said.
According to the American Cancer Society, 1,596,670 new cancer cases and 571,950 deaths from cancer were projected in the United State in 2011.
Irish’s project is titled “Epigenetic Mechanisms of Transformation for the NSD3 Oncogene in Human Breast Cancer Cells With the 8p11-p12 Amplicon.” He is driven by studying oncogenes that have not yet been characterized and successfully targeted therapeutically. He said he appreciates that the T32 training grant confirms his questions are a small but important part in the lab’s overall research focus.
“To me, being awarded a position on the training grant was confirmation that someone thinks I can do a good job, coupled with the expectation that I go ahead and get the job done. So, it’s a great motivator for both of those reasons,” Irish said. “To make even a small contribution toward understanding even one type of cancer better, in order to better prevent or treat it, would mean a lot to me.”
Irish, a Lansing native, earned his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University.