Graduate student spotlight: Looking for the “Achilles’ heel” of an aggressive pediatric cancer

Every other month, we highlight one of Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month features Maggie Chassé, a student in the laboratory of Dr. Patrick Grohar. Maggie studies a rare but aggressive pediatric cancer called rhabdoid tumor in search of new therapies to better treat this devastating disease.  

Maggie Chassé

How would you describe your area of study to your family? 

I am developing therapies for rhabdoid tumor, a rare pediatric cancer. Rhabdoid tumor only has one DNA alteration so you’d think this would make it easier to treat; however, this disease is highly aggressive and there are currently no effective therapies available.

In my Ph.D., I am developing targeted therapies that inhibit the Achilles’ heel, or addiction, of rhabdoid tumor. We are doing this by using drugs derived from nature to inhibit production of important proteins the cancer cell requires to survive and grow. The ultimate goal is to characterize a therapy that kills cancer cells (cytotoxic) and a therapy that turns cancer cells into benign, normal cells (differentiation). We will then test which is a more effective and safe therapy for rhabdoid tumor. 

What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?

The patients and their families. Knowing that the research I am doing will directly affect patient lives not only drives me to persevere through the adventures of graduate school, but pushes me to be a more rigorous and passionate scientist. We are reminded daily of the impact of our research as our lab’s windows look out at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital across the street. 

What do you want to do with your degree?

I would like to run my own lab and continue to develop safe and effective therapies for pediatric cancer.

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

I did take time off to perform research between my Bachelor’s and my Master’s degrees as well as between my Master’s and my Ph.D. It was a breath of fresh air to solely focus on science and take a break from the classroom! Further, knowing that I loved going to lab every day and doing research solidified my desire to pursue a Ph.D.

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

My background is in English literature as well as biochemistry and biophysics, all of which helped develop my communication and critical thinking skills. It has been a fun transition from a molecular biologist to a cell and cancer biologist. I still rely heavily on my previous experience and training to inform my Ph.D. research — understanding how a compound works mechanistically directly affects how successful a drug will be in the clinic.

Do you think there is any value in social networking with other graduate students in non-related fields?

Very much so! I think scientists are naturally curious and enthusiastic about learning so, at least for me, I enjoy networking with graduate students in other fields. There is so much to learn both intellectually and professionally.

How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?

While the patients and their families are truly the ones fighting the “war on cancer,” as a scientist, I hope to be a voice and advocate for those patients. Pediatric cancer research is vastly underfunded and understudied, I plan to dedicate my career to this field and would like to believe I can make a difference in therapy development and impact patient health. Lastly, as a woman in science, I strive to be a strong role model that will inspire and foster future generations of girls in STEM. 

Did your past experiences in life or education help prepare you for graduate school or did you have to develop different strategies to succeed?

Both. Having a Master’s degree and being trained by an excellent mentor helped prepare me for the large workload of graduate school. However, learning to adapt to the lack of “work-life balance” in my Ph.D. took some time and is still a work in progress. 

What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?

Spending time with my family! I’m also a huge fan of almost anything on the Food Network.

What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud of?

I am probably most proud of my personal development as well as growth in self-confidence, which can be attributed, at least partly, to my extremely supportive advisor and lab. There is nothing quite like being excited to give a seminar, rather than dreading it, or being able to confidently defend your ideas to experts in your field.

Are you involved in other community activities and if so, how have they shaped your graduate experience?

I volunteer for Carol’s Ferals, an organization dedicated to ending feline overpopulation in West Michigan. Volunteering has helped a lot with the stresses of graduate school — kitten therapy can fix just about anything!

Has your perception of this Ph.D. program changed since you began the program?

Yes and no. I knew that a Ph.D. would be stressful and a lot of hard work. However, I did not expect to find such a supportive and warm community within Van Andel Institute Graduate School, the Graduate Student Association and my lab. I also underestimated the amount, and the rate, of professional and personal growth that would start from the minute I started my Ph.D. 

If you were asked to put something in a time capsule for each year you have been in the program and this capsule would not be opened for 25 years, what would you contribute?

2016: A photo of my husband and pets — the support system that carried me through first year.

2017: My computer — many hours spent on this computer in preparation for my comprehensive exam.

2018: My magnetic tube rack. This rack is an integral part of chromatin immunoprecipitation — the assay that I performed almost weekly in the last 12-months.

If you hadn’t been admitted to graduate school, what do you think you would be doing right now?

I would love to work in a craft brewery and use my knowledge of biochemistry to brew some delicious beer.