February 05, 2024
In 2023, The University of Kansas Cancer Center launched its new Trainee Membership initiative, which aims to boost access to training and education resources for students who are interested in becoming leaders in cancer-related research and health care professions.
Renee Gilbert, M.A., was quick to seize the opportunity to expand her career development opportunities and learn from leading experts in cancer research and care. Renee is a fourth-year graduate student and member of the University of Kansas Medical Center’s Clinical Child Psychology program. Renee is drawn to the strength and resilience of children and families facing cancer, and she studies posttraumatic growth and health behaviors in young adult survivors of pediatric cancer.
Renee is dedicated to fostering diversity and addressing health disparities as she aims to become a researcher championing positive long-term health outcomes and inclusivity in cancer research. Collaborating with experienced researchers and seeking grant support, she is determined to make significant contributions to the field and encourages others, especially those from marginalized communities, to persist in their cancer research career journey.
Below, Renee gives insight to her career aspirations and what drives her to advance the field.
What inspired you to pursue a career in cancer research?
I entered my doctoral program interested in children’s positive adaptations and resilience in the aftermath of traumatic experiences. When I learned about Dr. Carolyn Bates’ work in her Pediatric Psychology Lab that investigates child and family functioning following a cancer diagnosis, I thought this would be a very insightful population to explore my research questions and was inspired by the strength and resiliency of many of these children and families.
What is your research focus?
I am currently focused on posttraumatic growth and health behaviors in young adult survivors of pediatric cancer for my dissertation project.
I believe that the experience of surviving pediatric cancer is so unique, and I wonder about the lasting impacts it has on functioning. Young adulthood is a particularly important time to study in this population, given their newfound independence yet need to continue to be proactive about their health. Ultimately, this population has a lot of insight about how a potentially traumatic health experience in childhood may influence their health behaviors, in a positive or negative way. This is also a diverse population, which may offer perspectives of additional barriers that contribute to our understanding of disparities in health outcomes.
Which aspects of the trainee membership benefits, such as connections to research programs, access to grant writing support, and training opportunities, are most valuable to you in advancing your career in cancer research?
There are many benefits that are helpful to me as I advance my career! I recently resubmitted a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Individual Predoctoral Fellowship to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research application to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Also called an F31 grant, this funding will allow me to conduct this crucial research! I believe grant writing support is a very useful resource as I progress throughout my research career, and I am grateful for this membership benefit in addition to many others.
In addition, I was selected to speak at the trainee breakout session at the 2023 KU Cancer Center Research Symposium. This opportunity allowed me to present my survivorship research to the KU Cancer Center community, comprised of faculty, students and trainees. The Research Symposium also exposed me to all of the innovative and important work being done by other cancer researchers in the field.
Have you had the opportunity to collaborate with experienced KU Cancer Center researchers within the program?
My research mentor, Dr. Carolyn Bates, is a researcher and member of the cancer center’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program. I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to several of her studies within her lab, including the Power of Parenting (POP) study, and the Home Environment and Distress in Pediatric Cancer study. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with Dr. Eve-Lynn Nelson, also a member of the cancer center’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program, who will serve as my primary sponsor for my F31 award, if received.
Additionally, I shadow Dr. Bates’ appointments at the Pediatric Cancer Survivorship Transition Clinic, which was established by KU Cancer Center, Children’s Mercy and the Masonic Cancer Alliance. Drs. Bates, Nelson and I have collaborated on several presentations investigating demographic barriers to a successful survivorship care transition within this patient population.
What are your long-term career goals in the field of cancer research?
My long-term career goal is to be a researcher within a university or academic medical setting like the University of Kansas Medical Center. I aim to continue my line of research investigating the mental health impacts of trauma in children and families affected by cancer. My ultimate goal is to develop interventions that promote positive long-term health outcomes in this population. I aim to integrate a health disparities lens throughout my career to maximize inclusion of underrepresented perspectives in cancer research and address additional barriers faced by these populations.
Are there specific milestones or achievements you hope to reach in the coming years?
I am very excited about conducting my dissertation research within this population of young adult survivors! I hope to receive an F31 award for this research and continue to pursue grant funding in the future. I aim to apply for internships next year, and I look forward to pursuing further education in pediatric psycho-oncology through internship.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in cancer research?
I believe that cancer research is very important as we continue to improve outcomes for the pediatric population. Persistence is key! It can be an effortful but rewarding endeavor. As a black woman and first-gen student, there are additional barriers that we face in pursuing academic careers. However, I believe diverse perspectives in this field are necessary! Therefore, as institutions continue to work to address these barriers, I hope that those from marginalized communities are encouraged to persevere in this field.