August 29, 2022
We recently spoke with Haleigh Parker, a third-year Ph.D. Candidate in Biology. She specializes in cell, molecular, health, and disease research, with a focus on breast cancer research, especially that of metastatic breast cancer. Haleigh is at the forefront of breast cancer research at Baylor, participating in the very future of her field. Haleigh had much to share about her time at Baylor in her program, the resources she's utilized to conduct her research, and where she hopes her research leads both her and the medical community.
Why did you choose to attend Baylor for Graduate School?
Coming from a very large university, I knew I was more suited for the smaller, community feel that Baylor offers. Here, no one is treated as just another student, but as an individual. I also have an amazing mentor and wonderful lab mates, and I think that is rare. There are so many research universities and labs doing really cool science, but what sets Baylor apart, is the people.
What are your research interests?
I am interested in cancer biology, cell metabolism, and drug development. My dream career would involve developing novel treatments for rare cancers and those that currently have no good therapeutic options. As we all know, the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, so it is what I am most interested in targeting. I think metabolically targeted treatments will be the way of the future for a number of diseases and provide a less expensive avenue as compared to things like personalized medicine.
What opportunities or implications stem from your research?
Hopefully, a new treatment for metastatic breast cancer will be achieved! 1-in-8 women will develop breast cancer, and in the case of triple-negative breast cancer, will have a high chance of metastasis. TNBC already has limited treatment options pre-metastasis, but post-metastasis, treatments are even less effective with overall survival of about a year. In addition to this overall goal, I am developing protocols to study the mitochondria in the context of cancer, allowing for future discoveries of actionable metabolic targets.
What research excites you right now?
Cybrid research! A collaborator of ours was able to deplete the mitochondria from a cancer cell and non-cancer cell, then replete the cells with either cancerous mitochondria or healthy mitochondria. These experiments allowed for the conclusion of metastatic characteristics of cancer cells are heavily dependent on their mitochondria! It is just so cool that you can decrease invasion, migration, and proliferation of a cancer cell just by introducing healthy mitochondria.
How does Baylor help you achieve your research?
Baylor provides a positive community that supports young researchers, women in STEM, and underrepresented populations. Being in this type of environment allows me to focus on the joy of the work—of the discovery. Loving where you work is very important when it comes to the marathon that is a Ph.D. program, and I feel so lucky to have found my lab and PI.
What is your dissertation research focused on?
I am attempting to answer a couple of questions. First, what’s going on metabolically during metastasis? More specifically, what are the changes in mitochondrial function during epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT)? The other side of this is: what causes cells that have experienced this transition to become sensitive to a cytotoxic agent? I hypothesize that it is the metabolic changes experienced by cells during EMT that confers sensitivity to the agent. The last question: which change(s) specifically confer sensitivity, and can we exploit them? I can’t wait to find the answers!