Samantha Schuster discusses with Dr. Andrew Hsieh a poster she created on mutations affecting prostate cancer.
By: BBI Communications
“Methodical and thoughtful.” “Experimentally intrepid.” “Strong and quiet resoluteness.”
One might think those three phrases could be excerpts from an introduction honoring a world class scientist at an international event, not a 27-year-old doctoral candidate about to complete her Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology.
Since arriving in Seattle in 2017, Samantha Schuster has demonstrated those professional characteristics – and more – in her graduate work at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. It takes only a minute or two speaking with Schuster to realize she made the right choice for graduate school.
“What attracted me to the UW Molecular and Cellular Biology program was its strong partnership with Fred Hutch,” Schuster said. “During my first year, I was able to rotate through several labs studying cancer from different perspectives in a world-class research center. I eventually chose the lab of Dr. Hsieh’s (pronounced “SHAY”) for my thesis research. I study an often-overlooked aspect of prostate cancer genomics. The lab has been a great place for me to foster my interests in both gene regulation and cancer biology.”
Those interests started when Schuster was in high school.
As a part of her high school’s Advanced Placement Biology curriculum, she was introduced to genetics. It was fascinating.
About the same time, Schuster’s mother was diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer, a form of cancer well-suited to targeted, gene-directed therapy.
“The combination of my mother’s treatment and my studies fostered my interests in disease genomics and genetic therapies,” Schuster said. (Her mother today, thankfully, is cancer-free.)
She arrived in 2013 at the University of California, Davis. The school’s College of Biology enabled her to drill deep into her interests, majoring in Genetics and Genomics.
“It was amazing how many specific, upper-level classes I was able to take in genomics and human disease,” she said. “It was a great place to explore these topics.”
She was also able to explore those topics during the summers of 2015 and 2016, working in a lab at the University of California, Los Angeles. She studied under Dr. Dennis Slamon, the director of Clinical/Translational Research, director of the Revlon/UCLA Women's Cancer Research Program at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Slamon is one of the major researchers contributing to the development and success of Herceptin, the drug that saved her mother’s life.
Schuster was responsible for a panel of cancer cell lines, including prostate cancer, melanoma, leukemia, and lymphoma lines, in which she tested the efficacy of newly developed therapeutics to determine the specificity of novel drugs across target and off-target types of cancer.
'Samantha has single-handedly created a new branch of research in my lab.' Dr. Andrew Hsieh
Those experiences sharpened her academic focus on molecular and cellular biology. She matriculated into the University of Washington Molecular and Cell Biology graduate program (MCB) in the Fall of 2017. There she decided to join the laboratory of Dr. Andrew Hsieh, an associate professor in the Human Biology and Clinical Research Divisions.
“Samantha has single-handedly created a new branch of research in my lab,” Hsieh said. “She has focused on understanding how the somatic landscape of 3’ untranslated regions influence gene expression and cancer. To do so, she had to be experimentally intrepid, because new technologies were required. I have really been impressed by how she stepped up to this challenge, and how methodical and thoughtful she is when it comes to conceptualizing and conducting experiments.”
Schuster is also methodical, thoughtful – and intentional – about mentoring other students.
“I really like mentorship on a one-on-one basis,” she said. “I’ve worked with high school students through multiple outreach programs at Fred Hutch, trained undergrads and rotating graduate students within the Hsieh lab, and been a resource to incoming graduate students in MCB as a “Big Sib” and the Student Area Director for Cancer Biology.”
In addition, Schuster is passionate about growing the graduate student community within MCB and Fred Hutch, organizing biweekly student meetings, leading recruitment for incoming students, and reviving the MCB student spring retreat.
Another rewarding aspect of Schuster’s graduate career was the opportunity from her program to do a “biotech externship,” enabling her during the summer of 2018 to spend 10 weeks working at Lumen Bioscience, the Seattle-based biotechnology company.
Differences in the work environment in biotech, as compared to the academic sector, she said, were striking.
“I was assigned to work on one research project, but after six or seven weeks, I was told to scrap it and do something else,” Schuster said. “These decisions are common in biotech, but less so in academia. It was my first experience in a corporate, top-down decision-making structure. I enjoyed being able to experience first-hand the fast-paced and goal-oriented environment in a company and it reinforced my interest to pursue a career in industry.”
Hsieh, her PI at Fred Hutch, believes Schuster has the professional qualities and characteristics to be successful in biotech.
“Samantha has a very strong and quiet resoluteness about her,” he said. “She doesn’t get too discouraged when things do not work out. In fact, she faced a lot of challenges over her five years in the lab to develop and execute her thesis project. But each and every time I witnessed her get back up, think through the problem, and eventually come up with a very creative solution. I would summarize this characteristic as thoughtful and goal-oriented grit.”