Graduate student spotlight: Investigating a genetic disorder that increases cancer risk

Throughout the year, we highlight Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month, we’re featuring Shelby Compton, a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Dr. Russell Jones. Shelby studies a genetic disease that significantly increases a person’s lifetime risk of developing cancer.   

How would you describe your area of study to someone without a scientific background?

SC: I study a protein called LKB1 that, when mutated, causes a disease called Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS). Patients with this disease develop polyps in the gastrointestinal tract that display characteristics of inflammation. My work focuses on understanding how LKB1 regulates inflammation and how this influences polyp development. With a better understanding of how LKB1 functions, improved treatments for patients with PJS can be developed.

Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?

SC: After completing my undergraduate degree in cellular and molecular biology, I joined Van Andel Institute as a research technician in the lab of Dr. Stefan Jovinge. I felt it was important to gain further research experience before embarking on my Ph.D. Taking this time allowed me to better establish my career goals and trajectory.

How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?

SC: My undergraduate coursework is what defines my breadth of knowledge; from there, what I have learned has only become more specific. Thus, it is important to have a strong and diverse background in undergraduate studies. Undergraduate classes were an invaluable foundation upon which I could build, especially during my first year of the Ph.D. program. My previous research experiences also created a solid foundation of practical skills for the work that was to come. 

Why did you choose Van Andel Institute Graduate School?

SC: I liked the idea of small class sizes and the problem-based learning approach, because I knew I would be challenged to a greater extent than at other institutions. Furthermore, I was intrigued by the exciting and high-quality research taking place at the Institute.

Interested in Van Andel Institute Graduate School? Learn more at vaigs.vai.org and read previous student spotlights here.