The Long Game

September 23, 2022
Jung HyunMin
It takes patience to do cancer research. The rewards are not immediate and results may not come in a researcher’s life time. For Baylor cancer researchers, there is an understanding that the work they do will have its greatest impact on future generations. They are tackling one of the biggest human health challenges and while each has a unique focus, their motivations are similar – the day-to-day transformations they see in their students as they begin their research journey.

John L. Wood, Ph.D., is the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Professor and Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas Scholar for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and director of the Wood Research Group. His research focuses on developing chemical syntheses of naturally occurring molecules that possess medicinal properties. Wood came to Baylor in 2013 after serving as a faculty member at Yale University for 13 years and 7 years at Colorado State.

Jung Hyun Min, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Chemistry and the leads the Min Research Laboratory Group with a focus on understanding how cellular DNA repair works by investigating the structures and dynamics of protein-DNA complexes involved in DNA damage sensing and repair using X-ray crystallography and various biochemical/biophysical techniques. Her 2019 study in Nucleic Acids Research was published as a “breakthrough” article on the process by which sunlight-induced DNA damage is recognized as needing repair.

Leigh Greathouse, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in Nutrition Sciences at Baylor University. The Greathouse Research Laboratory focuses on the relationship between diet and the microbiome and its impact on cancer etiology and treatment. She earned a coveted ( Career Development Award from the Department of Defense in 2020 among numerous awards. Greathouse’s research is motivated by her own battle with cancer as a young woman.

They share their thoughts on the heart of cancer research, mentorship and more.

How would you describe your approach to fighting cancer?

John Wood: In my lab, I train students how to put molecules together one atom at a time, controlling which atom goes where, and where those atoms are located in three-dimensional space. The students in my laboratory move on to positions in either academia or industry, typically in pharmaceutical companies, where they will be developing new drugs that can be for the treatment of any kind of disease.

Leigh Greathouse: My research group focuses on understanding the interaction between what we eat and how that affects the bacteria that live in our body, specifically related to cancer development and treatment response. We try to understand the factors in our diet that most impact the bacteria that are related to cancer development. We use molecular tools in the lab to understand those mechanisms, and then we apply some of that knowledge to do translational research in cancer patients, where we take biospecimens to understand those factors that might improve cancer treatment response to improve precision medicine.

Jung Hyun Min: In our lab, we try to understand how DNA damages gets repaired in cells. The relationship to cancer is pretty intimate because the cancer is basically a disease of mutations, and mutations often originate from unrepaired DNA damage. Sunlight can damage your DNA, and we study that repair pathway—nucleotide excision repair pathway. The way we do that is by trying to look at the three-dimensional atomic-level structures and study their motions. And by looking at the structure of the molecules, we can have a better idea of what they are doing and how they are doing those things.

In your own ways, each of you are tackling perhaps the biggest human health challenge out there – certainly one that has consumed almost everyone’s heart or mind at some point. What drives you in playing a very, very long game?

Jung Hyun Min: It’s a very long game. To be honest, I'm here because I just didn't quit. But I think what keeps me going is that I like my work. Of course, it's meaningful to think that my research can have a greater impact at the end for somebody to tackle some difficult problems such as cancer.

How does a breakthrough article, like your findings in Nucleic Acid, where you bring about new understanding, motivate along the way?

Jung Hyun Min: Well, it's very rewarding of course, and it's like a sip of water along your journey. I'm thankful for that, but those things are by no means the goals themselves. I think it’s difficult to survive by looking for an extrinsic reward like that, because it's a long journey and for a long stretch of time there is no visible reward along the way. But it’s good for the team members, and to be involved in this was good for my graduate students and postdocs.

Leigh Greathouse: I by no means think that I'm going to identify a cure for cancer—hopefully something that, in the future, will help a number of people with different types of cancer. My own struggle with cancer really is what keeps driving me to solve these big problems that we are facing on a regular basis—things like treatment response, long term side effects. How can we reduce those with simple, or perhaps more complicated, interventions? What really keeps my scientific curiosity going is tackling some of those bigger problems that cancer patients face.

John Wood: Well, for me, when it comes to the long game, the unique thing about this job is that I'm the only one getting older here. I have a constant turnover of students in my laboratory and they're all static in terms of being between that 20 and 25-year age. To me, maintaining momentum over a number of years has never been so much about the contributions that our research would be making to a bigger problem. It's just been the day-to-day transformation you see taking place in your students and how they function as a research group.

What does mentorship mean to you?

John Wood: For me, the single most rewarding and best part of my job is to have a student contribute an idea to their project and have that idea come to fruition. Because when that happens, you can see in that student's eyes, you can see in that student's work ethic, a transformation take place where they have taken ownership of their research project. It's theirs and you know that by enabling this transformation that person's going to go on and have a great career in this field because guiding one’s own research develops self-confidence. That's the best, most motivating thing that happens to me and what keeps me wanting to come back.

Jung Hyun Min: It is something that I take as my huge responsibility. I think developing personal rapport and trust is very important. With my students, I try to share my experiences and anecdotes when I was a student or a postdoc. Stories and anecdotes from others were helpful for me when I was a trainee. I'm hoping that they would be helpful for my students too and they know that they are not alone. Another thing I take seriously in teaching my student is in developing their ability to look at scientific results and literature in a critical and objective manner and to describe their understanding in their own words.

Leigh Greathouse: It’s a driving force, the fact that I get to mentor new young burgeoning scientists that will hopefully go out there one day and do amazing things in their career, and bring new technologies or new thoughts or new findings, and really developing them to have high ethical standards. It helps me as a scientist too, getting to have all these new ideas, getting to share with them their life. It helps us become a team, a family. I’m honest with them about the struggles and joys so that they see what it takes and recognize if this is what they can see themselves doing.

You could be doing this research anywhere. Why Baylor?

Jung Hyun Min: It's very motivating to be at Baylor. It is motivating to have the culture to be better, to do our best to be a prominent R1 research institution. To be able to articulate that clearly and unabashedly together is I think a huge thing. It's very unique. I don't think all institutions can articulate and share goals like that as Baylor does.

Leigh Greathouse: I'm glad that Baylor has gotten to the point where we've reached R1 status and can demonstrate that you can have shared goals that are not mutually exclusive of strong belief in God and still having strong research as demonstrated by our publications and grant funding.

John Wood: Baylor presented an opportunity to be part of growing a research program and the University has made good on almost all the expectations I had when I arrived here. Importantly, this commitment to growth was not just centered in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, but was really a unified approach that everybody bought into and has been working hard to achieve.

At Baylor, the heart of research is grounded in our mission, compassion for others, and a call to solve our world’s greatest challenges. Discover other conversations with faculty in environmental health, human flourishing, data sciences and materials science and engineering.
Are you looking for more News?